The second day of proceedings in the Caldor Fire court case continued Wednesday with an investigator describing some of the severe injuries victims experienced during the blaze, part of an effort to buttress charges against the suspects alleging they caused widespread harm to residents and first responders by starting the fire.
The preliminary hearing in the case against father and son arson suspects David and Shane Smith is aimed at determining whether there is enough evidence to take the case to trial.
Prosecutors appear to be focused on a theory that the father and son sparked the blaze while firing guns in the tinder-dry area of El Dorado County where the devastating fire broke out in August 2021.
But defense attorneys Linda Parisi and Mark Reichel have openly criticized the investigation that led to the Smiths’ arrests, suggesting other potential suspects who were in the area of the fire’s origin were ignored.
They also have noted that their clients are the only people who were near the fire when it began who bothered to warn others and stopped to call 911 to report the blaze.
Investigators used cellphone and GPS data to tie the Smiths to the scene of the fire’s point of origin, El Dorado District Attorney’s investigator John Robertson testified.
“We were trying to identify what devices were in the area in and around the time of the fire,” Robertson said.
Robertson said cellphone data showed David Smith’s phone in the area, and added that GPS data retrieved from the Smiths’ Polaris Razor ATV showed that vehicle at the site of the fire’s origin.
Robertson said the GPS data showed the Razor leaving David Smith’s house in Somerset at 4:49 p.m. the night the fire began and arriving at the point of origin of the fire at 6:10 p.m., where it remained for 21 minutes.
The vehicle left and stopped at 6:48 p.m., the time that corresponded with the 911 call Shane Smith made to report the fire, then returned to David Smith’s home at 7:31.
Under cross-examination by Parisi, David Smith’s attorney, Robertson conceded that he did not recall seeking cellphone or GPS data for other individuals who were in the area of the fire when it began, including individuals who the Smiths’ lawyers have suggested were among potential suspects.
“I don’t recall examining any other GPS tracks,” he said.
Under questioning from prosecutor Jay Linden, Robertson said investigators asked for any and all devices that connected with cellphone towers in the area, and that at the time they had no particular suspect identified.
The Smiths are charged with arson causing great bodily injury to residents and emergency personnel, and Linden elicited testimony Wednesday about injuries to some of the Caldor Fire victims.
El Dorado District Attorney Office investigator Gary Malmquist testified about three fire victims he interviewed, including Grizzly Flat resident Brian Thielsen, who said he awoke at 2:15 a.m. to find his entire neighborhood ablaze.
“He got dressed, went outside and noticed his neighbor’s houses were on fire,” Malmquist recounted.
Thielsen told Malmquist he went to his garage, kicked in the side door and got onto an all-terrain vehicle to try and escape the flames that had surrounded him.
Finally, Thielsen told Malmquist, he was forced to drive through the flames to try to get to safety.
“He described it as a blowtorch blowing across the street,” Malmquist said. “So he made the decision he had to drive through it.
“He experienced the worst pain of his life, he said. He thought he was going to die.”
Thielsen ended up at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, where he was subjected to skin grafts and daily wound care and therapy to heal, Malmquist said.
Malmquist also interviewed West Stanislaus Fire District firefighter Richard Gerety, who suffered severe burns after he fell while fighting the fire and spent 33 days at UC Davis.
Cal Fire says the blaze began at 6:54 p.m. Aug. 14, 2021, east of Omo Ranch and south of the town of Grizzly Flat, which was devastated by the blaze.
The fire quickly exploded from its point of origin, eventually burning 221,835 acres — about 362 square miles — spread across El Dorado, Alpine and Amador counties and forcing the evacuation of South Lake Tahoe.
Officials say 1,005 homes, businesses and other structures were destroyed and 21 people were injured.
Prosecutors on Wednesday called weapons experts as witnesses to describe firearms seized in searches of the Smiths’ homes.
In addition to the arson-related charges, David Smith faces a charge of possession of a silencer, and his son is charged with possession of a machine gun.
Sacramento police detective Ryan Oliver, a member of the region’s U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives task force, testified that during a search at David Smith’s Somerset home in September he found two threaded pipes in a burn pile about 100 yards from the house.
Oliver said the pipes could be components of a homemade firearm suppressor, but conceded they did not contain the internal baffles needed to disperse gases from a gunshot and that he had not checked them to see if they would have fit any of the firearms seized during searches.
Reichel and Parisi suggested during their cross-examination that threaded pipes could be from something as simple as a bicycle.
They also criticized another prosecution witness, El Dorado D.A.’s investigator Joe Ramsey, when he testified that he could not recall being present for an interview with a man who was camping near where the fire broke out.
Reichel provided Ramsey with a copy of a report that said Ramsey and a Cal Fire investigator had interviewed the man after the fire, but Ramsey said the interview was conducted by the Cal Fire official and that he had not paid close attention to the questioning.
Under persistent questioning from Parisi, Ramsey said he simply did not remember the interview.
“So, you’re a blank slate?” Parisi asked.
“Yes,” Ramsey replied.
The hearing before Judge Vicki Ashworth, which began Tuesday, has grown testy at times, with repeated objections between lawyers and even one witness declaring that he agreed with an objection from the prosecution.
At one point Tuesday, Parisi’s objections became so heated that the judge interrupted and said she was taking a five-minute from the recess to give Parisi time “to remember how to properly address this court.”
Ashworth on Tuesday afternoon told lawyers that the hearing would resume Dec. 20 in Placerville.