A man charged with setting the Holy Fire that torched 23,000 acres in Orange and Riverside counties described a “lucid dream” about a neighbor’s cabin being set ablaze when questioned about the massive fire, an Orange County Fire Authority investigator testified Wednesday.
Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Donald Ford, who took the witness stand at the outset of Forrest Gordon Clark’s preliminary hearing, said the 51-year-old defendant described “a lucid dream” he said he had, in which his neighbor, Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department Chief Michael Milligan, took a “small container” of gas and poured it through a broken window.
An animated Clark “was moving around quite a lot” as he relayed the “dream” to the investigators, who were trying to determine the cause of the blaze, which forced thousands of people from their homes, Ford testified.
Ford acknowledged that he initially determined the fire started in Milligan’s Cabin 15, one cabin away from Clark’s Cabin 14, but now believes it was ignited in or around the Milligan cabin. He said he based his updated theory on reports from callers who dialed 911, saying they saw flames just outside the cabin before it was consumed.
When asked by Clark’s attorney, Nicole Parness of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, why he didn’t share that opinion with anyone until Wednesday, he cited “inexperience.”
Ford testified that when Clark was told he was under arrest, “a struggle ensued” with sheriff’s deputies.
Under questioning from Parness, Ford said he was unaware Clark had “mental health issues” when he first encountered the defendant, who was not wearing clothes when he spoke with investigators.
“He had some kind of necklace on,” Ford said.
“He was saying a lot of things… He spoke a lot,” Ford said when asked if his conversation often veered into “tangents.”
Ford testified he was also unaware of video evidence from the volunteer fire department that a “white truck” was seen speeding by before the fire erupted. Ford acknowledged that evidence bears further investigation, but could not speculate how significant it would be without knowing more.
Clark’s criminal case was briefly suspended in August when his courtroom outbursts led a judge to declare a doubt about his mental competency. He pleaded not guilty to arson and other charges Dec. 12 and is jailed in lieu of $1 million bail, which Parness previously argued should be reduced because, she said, an arson investigator with the Orange County Fire Authority theorized that another person might be responsible for setting the blaze.
She told reporters aft3r her client’s arraignment that he investigator cited Milligan as a potential suspect, based on “very well thought-out and logical” analysis, and accused prosecutors of not following up while continuing to pursue Clark as the main suspect.
Milligan denied the allegation and told CNS earlier this month that he had fully cooperated with investigators and invited them into his home “to tear it apart, do what you have to do” so they could rule him out as a suspect. He said he met with investigators three times and turned over his phone, a GPS device and an iPad to authorities. He said he offered to submit DNA and fingerprints, as well.
Milligan conceded he was in the area when the fire erupted, saying he was about a mile away from Clark’s cabin at the time, and said he understands law enforcement must investigate everyone who was in the vicinity of the fire’s origin.
“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,” he told CNS.
Deputy District Attorney Jake Jondle has 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, according to Jondle.
The preliminary hearing will determine whether there is enough evidence to order Clark to stand trial on charges of 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. He could face 10 years to life in prison if convicted.
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, another judge ruled that Clark was competent, and criminal proceedings were restarted.
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, Clarktold 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.