A man accused of setting the Holy Fire that burned 23,000 acres in Orange and Riverside counties, forcing thousands of people from their homes, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to arson and other charges.
Forrest Gordon Clark, 51, whose criminal case was briefly suspended in August when his courtroom outbursts led a judge to declare a doubt about his mental competency, is due back in court Dec. 20 for a pretrial hearing. He remains jailed in lieu of $1 million bail.
Clark’s attorney, Nicole Parness of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, argued that Clark’s $1 million bail should be reduced because an arson investigator with the Orange County Fire Authority has theorized that another person might be responsible for setting the blaze.
She told reporters the investigator cited Michael Milligan, the fire chief of the volunteer Holy Jim Fire Department and a Clark neighbor, as a potential suspect. Parness told City News Service the analysis was “very well thought out and logical” and believes prosecutors ignored the suggestion to keep pursuing Clark as the main suspect.
Milligan denied the allegation and told CNS he has fully cooperated with investigators and invited them into his home “to tear it apart, do what you have to do” so they can rule him out as a suspect. He said he has met investigators three times and turned over his phone, a GPS device and an iPad to authorities. He said he has offered to submit DNA and fingerprints as well.
He conceded he was in the area when the fire erupted, saying he was about a mile away from Clark’s cabin at the time.
“There were four people in the canyon, and two people were above the fire and couldn’t get back in and had to be rescued by helicopter,” Milligan said.
He said he understands law enforcement must investigate everyone who was in the vicinity of the fire’s origin.
In court, Parness asked Orange County Superior Court Judge Nancy Zeltzer to read the police report and argued that Clark’s mental competency should justify a lowering of his bail.
Zeltzer, however, kept bail at $1 million, but noted that if further facts emerge about the case warranting reduced bail, Parness could make her request again.
Deputy District Attorney Jake Jondle said the investigator’s report mentioning Milligan is just an “alternative theory,” but there is “no credible evidence” to lead prosecutors to consider it seriously.
Prosecutors are “confident” Clark is the right suspect, he said.
Clark has been the focus of investigators because of a “combination of things,” such as text messages he sent to neighbors as well as “threats made” to others, Jondle said.
Clark could face 10 years to life in prison if convicted of aggravated arson damaging at least five inhabited structures, arson of inhabited property, arson of forest and making criminal threats, all felonies, as well as two felony counts of resisting arrest.
In August, Orange County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Menninger ordered Clark to undergo a mental evaluation, saying she questioned his competency to assist in his defense. But on Nov. 28, Judge Michael Murray ruled that Clark was competent, and criminal proceedings were restarted.
Initially, a defense expert concluded Clark was mentally incompetent, but a prosecution expert ruled otherwise, prompting Murray to appoint a “tie-breaker” expert, who concluded Clark was capable of assisting his attorneys in his defense.
Parness has been pressing prosecutors to turn over more evidence in the case. She said she has been pushing to obtain text messages allegedly sent by Clark to neighbors, as well as surveillance video footage.
On Aug. 6, the day the Holy Fire erupted, Clark allegedly threatened to kill a neighbor about 7:30 a.m., prosecutors said in a previous motion to deny him bail.
As the neighbor walked to his truck, Clark allegedly told him that he “(expletive) with the wrong person,” according to the motion. “The defendant stated that he was `crazy’ and noted it was `perfect’ because he could do anything he wants and get away with it.”
Later that day, he allegedly set fire to his neighbor’s residence in Holy Jim Canyon. The Holy Fire ultimately also destroyed 13 other residences.
Orange County sheriff’s investigator Jennifer Hernandez said in an affidavit supporting the motion to deny bail that Clark “could be heard on video telling (a victim), `Mark my words, you’re gonna die at 12:37… I have 100 percent plausible deniability. You’re gonna die. I’m gonna murder you.”’
Clark allegedly made at least five “specific threats” and “allusions” to setting fires, according to Hernandez, who said the defendant “appears to believe in the Sovereign Citizen ideology.”
The ideology’s supporters “believe the government does not have the authority to enforce a majority of our laws and taxes,” Hernandez wrote, adding that not everyone who subscribes to the theory is violent, but law enforcement recognizes it as a “terrorism threat.”
Orange County sheriff’s deputies have had multiple encounters with Clark dating back to 2006, according to Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the department.
Parness said her client is “doing better” since prior court appearances when he was prone to verbal outbursts.
“He understands what’s going on and I think he’s doing OK” now, Parness said.
“He’s a very nice man, a gentle soul,” Parness said. “He’s so polite to me.”