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Hunting Accident File > VIOLATIONS: > 2004

CEDAR FIRE CALLED INTENTIONAL - HUNTER PLEADS NOT GUILTY; 15 DIED IN MASSIVE BLAZE

By Onell R. Soto
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
10:12 p.m. 0ctober 7, 2004

Investigators examining the spot where the Cedar fire started concluded that the blaze was intentionally set, a prosecutor said at a court hearing Thursday in which a hunter pleaded not guilty to federal charges.

Prosecutor Michael Lasater also told a judge that Sergio Martinez, the West Covina man charged with setting the fire, lied when he told officers a year ago that the blaze started from a ricochet from his gun.

"The fire was in fact intentionally set, and he was the only individual in that area," Lasater said. A ricochet didn't start the fire, the prosecutor said in San Diego federal court.

Martinez, 34, was rescued by a sheriff's helicopter crew after becoming lost while deer hunting last Oct. 25. He was questioned by officers soon afterward and initially was issued a misdemeanor citation.

As flames rapidly spread through the Cleveland National Forest, Martinez also told paramedics he was worried that police might find marijuana in his truck, the prosecutor told the judge.

Martinez is not facing drug charges, and prosecutors would not comment about whether they believe drugs played a part in his actions. Testimony before the grand jury that indicted Martinez is sealed.

Fifteen people, including a firefighter from Northern California, were killed in the blaze, which stretched from Julian to San Diego and burned 2,200 homes.

A report prepared in March for the U.S. Forest Service concluded that Martinez started the fire "as a means of being found." If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison on charges of setting the fire and lying about it.

Outside court, Lasater declined to explain how or why Martinez set the fire. "It was intentionally set" is all the prosecutor would say.

Defense lawyers Wayne Higgins and Jose Martinez Jr., Sergio Martinez's cousin, said they couldn't discuss the case in detail.

"We're prepared to defend the case vigorously," Higgins told reporters outside the courthouse.

"The family is supporting him," Jose Martinez Jr. said, referring to relatives of the defendant who attended the hearing.

Other than replying "Not guilty" when a clerk asked him for his plea, Sergio Martinez did not comment inside or outside the courtroom.

During the hearing, U.S. Magistrate Judge James Stiven ordered Martinez to return to court for a Nov. 5 hearing at which a trial date may be set.

Noting the prosecutor's comments about marijuana, the judge ordered Martinez not to use any illegal drugs and to submit to pretrial drug testing.

Stiven also allowed Martinez to remain free as long as he doesn't travel outside Southern California. Martinez lives with his parents, who put up their home to secure a $100,000 bond for his freedom.

The parents told the judge they have lived in the West Covina house for about 30 years. "It's paid for," said his father, who is disabled.

"You could lose your property or at least substantial equity," Stiven told Martinez's parents. They said they understand the consequences should their son not live up to his responsibilities.

The indictment charges Martinez with setting a fire that killed 14 people and caused more than $400 million in damage. Those allegations allow prosecutors to seek the maximum punishment in the case.

The 15th victim in the Cedar fire was a transient whose body was found in a ditch. "That one hasn't been identified," said Lasater, who said prosecutors are still determining whether to add that death to the charges.

Some fire officials and fire victims have complained about the amount of time it took to file charges. Lasater said "a thorough investigation" was needed.

Onell Soto: (619) 293-1280; onell.soto@uniontrib.com  

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