A man accused of igniting the Holy Fire that blackened 23,000 acres in Orange and Riverside counties was ordered Thursday to stand trial on arson charges.
Forrest Gordon Clark, 51, is scheduled to be arraigned Jan. 8.
At the end of a two-day preliminary hearing, Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett ruled that there was enough evidence for 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.
During testimony Thursday morning, a U.S. Forest Service investigator described his bizarre interview with Clark, who claimed he hadn’t slept and had been fasting for 40 days around the time the fire erupted Aug. 6 in Holy Jim Canyon, where he has a cabin. As a result, Clark said he couldn’t be sure if his recollections of what happened that day were just a lucid dream or reality, investigator Albert Banh testified.
Clark never admitted setting the fire, instead blaming it on “Mexicans,” and two of his neighbors in Holy Jim Canyon, Frank Romero and Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department Chief Michael Milligan, Banh said.
Clark claimed Romero and Milligan set the blaze to kill him and his cat, Banh testified.
Clark also complained someone had been stealing his keys and broke a window in his cabin, Banh testified. The defendant also speculate that the fire could have been started with candles, according to the investigator.
At another point, Clark said, “No, but maybe,” when asked if he started the blaze, Banh testified.
Banh said he interviewed Clark twice over two days after the fire started in August.
Clark told the officer he had recently been released from a hospital on a “5150 hold,” which is police slang for someone involuntarily committed to be evaluated for mental health issues. The defendant also admitted he had stopped taking his medication because he considered it “poison,” Banh testified.
Clark told Banh he had lived in Cabin 14 in Trabuco Canyon for about 18 years, and right away he had issues with his neighbor — Romero — in Cabin 15, where investigators believe the blaze originated.
Clark claimed Milligan set the fire and he knew that because he has a “third eye” and could “see” him doing it, Banh testified. Clark also claimed he could “smell the KKK cigarettes” of Milligan, Banh said.
Clark’s attorney, Nicole Parness, grilled Banh on whether he did a thorough enough investigation, pressing him on whether he tested the cabin or soil for fuel. Banh acknowledged under Parness’ questioning that there were two possible causes of the fire that he could not rule out in addition to arson, leading her to press him on why he didn’t conclude the cause was undetermined instead of arson.
Banh acknowledged that he “made a mistake” in his report in that he should have said the fire started in or around Cabin 15.
Banh also acknowledged that he did not follow up on video surveillance showing a white pickup truck speeding through the area around the time of the blaze’s ignition.
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 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, but said he was about a mile away from Clark’s cabin at the time.
Prosecutors have 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.
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 Deputy District Attorney Jake 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 Canyon and adjacent Trabuco Canyon.
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.”