Holy Fire suspect ordered to stand trial on arson charges

A man accused of igniting the Holy Fire that blackened 23,000 acres in Orange and Riverside counties was ordered to stand trial on arson charges.

Forrest Gordon Clark, 51, is scheduled to be arraigned Jan. 8.

At the end of a two-day preliminary hearing, Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett ruled that there was enough evidence for Clark to stand trial on felony charges of aggravated arson damaging at least five inhabited structures, arson of inhabited property, arson of forest and making criminal threats.

Orange County Fire Authority Capt. William Lackey testified Thursday that Clark's next-door neighbor, Frank Romero, used his phone to record four minutes of the defendant threatening to kill Romero hours before the fire was set.

"Mark my words, you're going to die at 12:37," Clark allegedly said in the recording, which was mostly audio since it was taken through a bathroom window screen that obscures the video, Lackey said.

Experts suspect the fire started between 12:44 p.m. and 1 p.m., Lackey said.

"I clap my hands and people die," Clark allegedly said in the recording, Lackey testified. "I can wipe out whole families."

Clark also supposedly said, "I'm (expletive) crazy now, and I can get away with it," according to Lackey. "I have 100 percent plausible deniability."

Romero, who had been having disputes with Clark since he moved next door 18 years ago, left his cabin about 7:30 a.m. the day the fire erupted Aug. 6.

Romero thought the "threats were credible and he was afraid of Mr. Clark," Lackey testified.

The fire captain said a 17-year-old girl and her 17-year-old boyfriend made the first 911 call at 1:16 p.m., saying they saw flames in front of Cabin 15, where Romero lived.

Several years before the Aug. 6 alleged threats, Clark told Romero, "If you mess with me I'll blow up your truck and burn down your cabin," according to Lackey.

On July 15, Clark accused Romero of breaking into his cabin and stealing from his neighbor, Lackey testified.

Clark was involuntarily admitted into a mental health hospital on July 23 and was released six days later, his attorney, Nicole Parness, said.

Under questioning from Parness, Lackey acknowledged that it appears Romero overheard Clark's threats from inside his cabin and headed back into his home to record the video, so it wasn't clear if the defendant was directly threatening Romero.

During testimony Thursday morning, a U.S. Forest Service investigator described his bizarre interview with Clark, who claimed he hadn't slept and had been fasting for 40 days around the time the fire erupted in Holy Jim Canyon, where he ha

recollections of what happened that day were just a lucid dream or reality investigator Albert Banh testified.

Clark never admitted setting the fire, instead blaming it on "Mexicans," and two of his neighbors in Holy Jim Canyon, Frank Romero and Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department Chief Michael Milligan, Banh said.

Clark claimed Romero and Milligan set the blaze to kill him and his cat, Banh testified.

Clark also complained someone had been stealing his keys and broke a window in his cabin, Banh testified. The defendant also speculate that the fire could have been started with candles, according to the investigator.

At another point, Clark said, "No, but maybe," when asked if he started the blaze, Banh testified.

Banh said he interviewed Clark twice over two days after the fire started in August.

Clark told the officer he had recently been released from a hospital on a "5150 hold," which is police slang for someone involuntarily committed to be evaluated for mental health issues. The defendant also admitted he had stopped taking his medication because he considered it "poison," Banh testified.

Clark told Banh he had lived in Cabin 14 in Trabuco Canyon for about 18 years, and right away he had issues with his neighbor -- Romero -- in Cabin 15, where investigators believe the blaze originated.

Clark claimed Milligan set the fire and he knew that because he has a "third eye" and could "see" him doing it, Banh testified. Clark also claimed he could "smell the KKK cigarettes" of Milligan, Banh said.

On Wednesday, Parness grilled Banh on whether he did a thorough enough investigation, pressing him on whether he tested the cabin or soil for fuel. Banh acknowledged under Parness' questioning that there were two possible causes of the fire that he could not rule out in addition to arson, leading her to press him on why he didn't conclude the cause was undetermined instead of arson.

Banh acknowledged that he "made a mistake" in his report in that he should have said the fire started in or around Cabin 15.

Banh also acknowledged that he did not follow up on video surveillance showing a white pickup truck speeding through the area around the time of the blaze's ignition.

Parness argued to Prickett that there was no physical evidence linking her client to starting the blaze, and she also argued that prosecutors failed to prove they had enough evidence the cause was even arson.

She also said there was no proof Clark intended to carry out the alleged threats he was making about Romero, especially "given his mental state" at the time.

Deputy District Attorney Jake Jondle argued that the recorded statements of Clark belie claims he was mentally ill at the time.

"Here he's very clear, very explicit," Jondle said, adding the defendant also brags he can "get away with this."

Clark's criminal case was briefly suspended in August when his courtroom outbursts led a judge to declare a doubt about his mental competency.

Another judge on Nov. 28 found Clark competent to assist in his defense, and criminal proceedings were restarted.

At the defendant's Dec. 12 arraignment, Parness unsuccessfully argued that her client's $1 million bail should be reduced because, she said, an OCFA arson investigator theorized that another person might be responsible for setting the blaze.

She told reporters that the investigator cited Milligan as a potential suspect, based on "very well thought-out and logical" analysis, and accused prosecutors of not following up while continuing to pursue Clark as the main suspect.

Milligan has denied any involvement in the blaze, telling City News Service earlier this month that he had fully cooperated with investigators and invited them into his home "to tear it apart, do what you have to do" so they could rule him out as a suspect. He said he met with investigators three times and turned over his phone, a GPS device and an iPad to authorities. He said he offered to submit DNA and fingerprints, as well.

Milligan conceded he was in the area when the fire erupted, but said he was about a mile away from Clark's cabin at the time.

Prosecutors have said the investigator's report mentioning Milligan is just an "alternative theory," but there is "no credible evidence" to lead prosecutors to consider it seriously.

CNS contributed to this report.