California, USA — The viability of murder charges against a Tulare man chargedwith setting brush fires that led to the deaths of two airborne firefighterscould hinge on the outcome of a hearing today in Tulare County Superior Court.At issue: whether enough evidence exists for Patrick Ryan Courtney, 29, to betried on arson charges. If not, can he still be prosecuted under the state’sfelony murder rule?
Courtney was bound over for trial in December by a Porterville judge whoruled there was enough evidence for two counts of first-degree murder and threecounts of setting a forest fire in a reckless manner, along with several otherspecial charges.
But the judge said not enough evidence existed for arson charges, sayingCourtney tried to put out the fires he allegedly set during Labor Day weekend.
A California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spotter planedirecting fire ground crews battling those fires crashed Sept. 6, killingVisalian Rob Stone, a Cal Fire battalion chief, and contract pilot George”Sandy” Willett of Hanford.
Courtney told investigators he walked into Bear Creek Drainage near BalchPark in the Tulare County mountains Sept. 4 after getting into a fight with hisgirlfriend.
He told investigators he spent the night in the canyon, lighting severalfires to keep warm, scare away animals and signal his location.
Prosecutors refiled arson charges against Courtney. But Courtney’s attorney,John Jackson, said the arson charges shouldn’t have been refiled because of thejudge’s ruling in December.
Jackson filed a motion earlier this month to set aside all charges againstCourtney. He said the felony murder rule doesn’t apply unless the arson also ischarged. He said there is no case law on whether setting a fire recklessly canbe the basis for such a murder charge.
The attorney said the effort to charge Courtney with arson and murder comesdown to politics.
“When a firefighter dies, see it as similar to a police officer dying inthe line of duty. They see it as one of their own has died,” Jackson said.
Prosecutor Tim Ward denied any bias. He said that while Cal Fireinvestigators participated, the inquiry was led by an investigator from the U.S.Forest Service.
Ward said Friday he couldn’t comment directly on Jackson’s request becausethe District Attorney’s Office hasn’t filed its response. But he added enoughevidence existed to refile arson charges based on information contained in thetranscript of December’s preliminary hearing.
Jackson’s motion also looks at what case law applies to Courtney’s situation.He said Courtney couldn’t have foreseen how setting fires he deemed necessaryfor safety could have led to the deaths of Stone and Willett.
A preliminary report on the plane crash by the National Transportation SafetyBoard didn’t provide a firm cause, but indicated the airplane may have beenflying too low, causing it to strike tall trees in the area.