It’s been a while since we’ve seen Judge Clayton Brennan in a Ukiah courtroom, but he was on the bench during a preliminary hearing last week and he’s to be commended for refusing, although the temptation must have been strong, to turn an alleged arsonist loose on his own recognizance.
“No,” Brennan said, “I just can’t do it. This time of year, with the hot weather and the conditions the way they are, I just don’t think it would be a good idea.”
The alleged arsonist was James Allen Norton, arrested June 14th for building a fire at Lake Mendocino then walking away from it. This is against the law, as Smokey The Bear signs everywhere remind visitors to the forest: Never Leave A Fire Unattended. But Norton was doing worse than that. As he walked away from the fire he was seen flicking his Bic lighter at the grass and brush.
It happened near the boat ramp, a busy place on a Saturday afternoon at the Lake. If we didn’t already know something about Mr. Norton, we would think he was either stupid or crazy. But what we know of Norton is that he’s pretty sane, logical and even smart. So smart, in fact, that he has hit upon a plan to “present” himself as crazy so he can get Social Security Insurance benefits early, without working and paying into the system all those years until he’s old enough to retire.
Two years ago on June 28th, 2016, Norton went through a Willits parking lot slashing tires on parked cars. He told the police he liked listening to the air escaping the tires, what he called the “Fshhhh & Swoooshhh.” Later in court Norton told the judge that he was trying to get on SSI, and even asked the judge how to go about it. Judge Nelson ignored the question, except to advise Norton to speak to his lawyer, and although I mentioned it in my report two years ago – I was perhaps a little incensed over a young guy trying to horn in on SSI, having paid in to it all these years myself – my self-serving comment was edited out.
But here Mr. Norton is, two years later, right back at it.
DA David Eyster called the Bureau Chief for CalFire, Officer Michael Smith, an arson investigator who said, “Nathan Hayes told me he was sitting in his vehicle in the parking lot when a flash caught his eye, and when he looked up he saw a male subject flick a lighter into the dry grass. I later showed him the suspect and Mr. Hayes confirmed that it was him.”
DA Eyster: “Do you see that individual in the court room today?”
Smith: “Yes, he’s seated at the defense table in a black and white striped shirt.”
Eyster: “Judge, may the record reflect the witness has identified the defendant?”
Brennen: “He has.”
It has been a while – more than two years – since Eyster would even speak to Judge Brennan. It used to be Eyster would invoke the trusty 170.6 Motion to disqualify Judge Brennan every time Brennan came to Ukiah. It appears some injury must have finally been healed by that venerable old physician, Dr. Time.
Officer Smith next spoke with Gordon Hanover, Jr. who also gave a similar account of a male walking away from a fire and flicking a lighter into the vegetation.
Eyster wanted to know if there was any potential for the fire to spread, and Officer Smith assured the court that “based on current conditions, it would have spread quickly.”
Public Defender Mary LeClair rose to cross-examine.
“Did Mr. Hanover give you a statement that he walked over to the fire my client started to make sure it wasn’t spreading?”
“Then Mr. Hanover walked back to his vehicle?”
“These two witnesses, Mr. Hayes and Mr. Hanover, they both observed Mr. Norton flick his lighter into the bushes?”
“Did any fires result?”
“No, there were not.”
“And once you arrived fire suppression efforts had already happened?”
Ms. LeClair showed a photograph to the witness and asked what it depicted.
“The fire apparatus engineer took that photograph just before extinguishing the fire.”
“Is that your foot in the photograph?”
“No, it’s not mine. It’s probably one of the firefighters.”
“You came back the following morning?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
Le Clair showed the witness another photo.
“And when you came the next day you took this photograph?”
“And this photograph shows a building in the background?”
“And you described this fire as being in a campfire configuration?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“Meaning, as one would arrange a campfire?”
“Here’s a picture I grabbed off Google Earth…”
Thereupon commenced long back and forths as to the accuracy of Google and crime scene photos until it was established that the defendant was….
“He was sitting up at the parking lot watching the fire burn?”
“And how far was he from the fire when he was flicking the lighter at the bushes?”
“I would infer approximately 100 feet., but I can’t say for sure.”
Eyster on redirect:
“Are you an arson expert?”
“Is this behavior something you expect to see from an arsonist?”
“Any background in psychology,” Ms. LeClair asked — and I thought here it comes, the bid for SSI bennies.
“No, except as it pertains to arsonists.”
Eyster: “A person sitting at a distance watching a fire spread through vegetation – is that a characteristic of an arsonist?”
Smith: “Yes. The arsonist will sometimes blend into the crowd of spectators; that is the arsonist will often prove to be in that pool of people watching the fire.”
LeClair: “Did my client appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol?”
LeClair: “Nothing further.”
Judge: “Any defense evidence?”
LeClair: “No. Your honor, what we have here is simple arson. We don’t dispute he set a fire on forest land, a wrongful act, but what I think we’re missing is the maliciousness. The fire was built in a classic campfire configuration next to the rock border of Lake Mendocino, a campfire that was extinguished. Witnesses saw Mr. Norton flicking his lighter next to the ground, but he could have been looking for something and the witness said the fire never got out of control, so we would be asking for the lesser included offense.”
Eyster: “A campfire presupposes a camp, judge. And here there’s no camp. It’s been shown that he built a fire and walked away, and as he walks away, he’s flicking his lighter into the grass and bushes. He goes about 500 feet away and watches the fire, which is characteristic of arsonists, of someone with a fire fascination.”
Brennan: “The arrangement of the wood could lead someone to think it was a campfire, but walking away, and flicking the lighter at the grass, undermines that idea. And Mr. Norton being found so far away…”
At this point Norton’s free hand, which had been un-cuffed, so he could take notes, shot into the air and he started to say something, but the deputies were on him quick, had him to his feet and snapped back into the cuffs.
Norton: “I was just trying to say something – what’s wrong with just talking?”
Brennan: “For the purposes of a preliminary hearing the evidence is sufficient to hold him to answer.”
LeClair: “Your honor, we would ask that Mr. Norton be released on OR. He’s a local, lives in Willits, not a flight risk, and while he has three prison priors and a felony vandalism, none of those are violent offenses, your honor.”
Brennan: “I’m not going to be granting any OR…”
Norton: “Mr. Bench, I have something to say.”
Brennan: “…public safety considerations are paramount in this case and it’s simply not feasible to OR him at this time. That’s all.”
The way Mr. Norton is going about getting SSI, he’ll be old enough by the time he gets out of prison to get the bennies without ever having paid anything in to it, which a lot of grumpy old codgers won’t like… But what can you do?