A man charged with setting the Holy Fire that torched 23,000 acres in Orange and Riverside counties, forcing thousands of people from their homes last August, described a “lucid dream” about a neighbor’s cabin being set ablaze when questioned about the conflagration, an Orange County Fire Authority investigator testified Wednesday.
OCFA Capt. Donald Ford, who took the witness stand at the outset of Forrest Gordon Clark’s preliminary hearing on arson and other charges, said the 51-year-old defendant described “a lucid dream” he said he had, in which Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department Chief Michael Milligan, who owns a nearby cabin, took a “small container” of gas and poured it through a broken window of another cabin next door to the defendant’s.
Clark, however, also told other versions of the dream in which “the Mexicans” set the massive blaze or even the owner of Cabin 15, his next-door neighbor Frank Romero, according to Ford and U.S. Forest Service Officer Albert Banh.
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, Ford testified.
Milligan has denied any involvement in the blaze.
Upon questioning by the defendant’s attorney, Ford acknowledged that he initially determined the fire started in Romero’s Cabin 15, one cabin away from Clark’s Cabin 14, but now believes it was ignited in or around Romero’s 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.
Deputy District Attorney Jake Jondle, however, moved to have resisting arrest charges against Clark dismissed due to a lack of evidence, and the judge granted the request.
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.
Ford also testified that Clark had a burn on one of his shoulders, which the defenant said he suffered fighting a small blaze. Ford also acknowledged he had no direct physical evidence linking Clark to setting the blaze, but concluded Clark was the arsonist due to other evidence such as his statements to investigators and alleged threats to Romero, with whom he supposedly had a long-running feud.
Banh said when he drove to the scene of the fire on the day it started, he heard “yelling” near Cabins 14 and 15.
“I heard a man screaming who was later identified to me as Forrest Clark,” Banh said. “He appeared to be arguing with those around him.”
When he questioned Clark, the defendant initially denied having set the fire, but then said he “maybe” did it, Banh testified.
“There were several responses” as to how the blaze started, Banh said.
At one point, the defendant suggested candles could have been used to ignite the fire, and then he pulled out some candles to show the investigator, Banh testified.
Clark also told Banh that he broke the window at Cabin 15 and was “remorseful” about it, the investigator said.
Clark allegedly threatened to kill Romero earlier in the day, before the fire started, Banh testified.
The preliminary hearing, which will continue Thursday, will determine whether there is enough evidence to order Clark to stand trial on felony charges of aggravated arson damaging at least five inhabited structures, arson of inhabited property, arson of forest and making criminal threats. He could face 10 years to life in prison if convicted.
Clark’s criminal case was briefly suspended in August when his courtroom outbursts led a judge to declare a doubt about his mental competency. Another judge on Nov. 28 found Clark competent to assist in his defense, and criminal proceedings were restarted.
At the defendant’s Dec. 12 arraignment, Parness unsuccessfully argued then that her client’s $1 million bail should be reduced because, she said, an OCFA arson investigator theorized that another person might be responsible for setting the blaze.
She told reporters that the 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 has denied any involvement in the blaze, telling City News Service 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.
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 was the focus of investigators because of a “combination of things,” such as text messages he sent to neighbors as well as alleged “threats made” to others, according to Jondle.
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 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. The Holy Fire ultimately also destroyed 13 other residences in Holy Jim Canjon and adjacent Trabuco Canyon.
Orange County sheriff’s investigator Jennifer Hernandez, who will be called to testify on Thursday, 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.