Cheat-Seeking Missles

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Arson Or "Playing With Fire?"

LA Times photo: Lawrence K. Ho
Our local fire still burns and the person who set it isn't caught. Fifty miles or so to the north, the Buckwheat fire in Agua Dulce fire is out, 21 homes are burned, and the person who set it has confessed. And that's just the start of the problem.
Prosecutors grappled on Wednesday with what charges, if any, to file against the 10-year-old boy who admitted he set a fire last week that charred more than 38,000 acres and destroyed 21 homes in northern Los Angeles County.

On the ranch northeast of Santa Clarita where the boy's parents helped care for horses, people who knew him said he had no history of problems and was distraught about the destruction.

"He's a child, and I certainly believe that he had no malice and I absolutely believe it was accidental," said Denise Tomey, executive director of Carousel Ranch, which offers equestrian therapy for physically and mentally disabled children.

The boy had no connection to the program but had lived in a trailer on the property in the Agua Dulce area for about a year with his parents, one of whom is a ranch caretaker.

Tomey called the boy's family "peaceful." (LA Times)
The boy admits to "playing with matches" while the winds howled around him. I remember playing with matches -- heck, even playing with blowtorches we created with my mom's hairspray and a lighter -- and as I recall, not one of my friends ever dropped out of this foolishness, saying, "Momma said ...." So I'm sympathetic, to a point.

It's the howling winds that get me. You have got to really want to start a fire to try it when the winds are gusting to 80 or 100 miles an hour, so I wonder at this boy's innocence.

Juvenile Hall is too much for a 10 year old, and would probably set arson into his genes. I'd rather see a process that intimidates: Statements, standing before a judge, fearing deeply ... then receiving mercy.

And then ten years or so of Reaganesque "trust but verify."

According to the LAT, the local record is mixed on youngsters who start fires:
Earlier this year, Los Angeles County prosecutors refused to file charges against two teenagers who touched off a blaze that charred 160 acres in the Hollywood Hills. The boys, who were visiting Los Angeles from Linden, Ill., were playing with a lighter in the back of the Oakwood apartments when they accidentally set twigs on fire. The flames spread up the hillside through deep vegetation. The boys, who turned themselves in to authorities, were not prosecuted.

But in Orange County, a 12-year-old girl was arrested Oct. 22 for allegedly setting a seven-acre fire in Anaheim. She remains in the custody of the Orange County Probation Department.
So the prosecutors will grapple, trying to look into the head of a 10 year old -- and we all know, for all their innocence, that 10 year olds are accomplished liars.

The other problem to grapple with is the civil liability that's now on this kid's parents' shoulders. By law, the couple, who live in a trailer on the ranch and serve as its caretakers, are liable for all the expenses of fighting the fire and replacing the losses of those whose homes burned.

This law's harsh application -- the kid did it; you're liable -- has always unsettled me. What if the parents knew something was twisted in the kid and had already spent thousands of dollars seeking treatment? Shouldn't that differentiate them from parents who just blew off their kid?

And what if the kid was innocent of malice? Why then are the parents guilty of a higher crime?

So here's a family that because of one moment's indiscretion by someone to young to have discretion has their lives hanging in the balance. Will normalcy ever return, or are they at the trailhead of a long, hellish trail?

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