Two Oceanside police officers testified during a trial today, August 5, that they saw a man put handfuls of dry brush onto a smoldering spot, twice, until the area re-ignited into flame.
“I still remember the intensity of the fire — it roared,” officer Frank McCutcheon said from the witness box.
The afternoon of May 14, both officers were sent to the 5200 block of North River Road for traffic control in an area where a wildfire had already been suppressed. Many homes and an elementary school border the spot along the edge of a broad span of the San Luis Rey River.
“There were a lot of fires going off in the county,” confirmed officer Ronald Nevares when he took his turn before the jury. Wildfires had raged all around San Diego County during that time frame, and a state of emergency had been declared.
Both officers said they saw Alberto Beltran Serrato, 57, put fuel onto a hot spot at the edge of the burnt riverbed, immediately after they arrived in their unmarked vehicle, a little after 3 p.m. “I looked at my partner almost in disbelief that this was happening,” officer Nevares said.
Nevares said the countywide emergency made police so short-handed that he phoned a supervisor to okay the arrest because replacement personnel had to be sent to take the officers’ position.
Both officers said Serrato wanted to know why he was being arrested and offered, “Why, for throwing a little bit of brush on the fire?”
The defense asserts that Serrato never made that statement and that he actually put dirt on the smoking spot to extinguish fire. “They assume that Mr. Serrato threw brush,” defense attorney Deborah Kirkwood told the jury in her opening remarks yesterday.
Kirkwood maintains that the Oceanside Police Department has unfairly targeted the defendant, who has a criminal record and is known to local police.
Kirkwood pointed out that both officers are part of a Gang Suppression Unit and that persons who live in the area did recognize their vehicle as “GSU” and shouted unfriendly remarks to officers.
“Most of the people who live around here have had problems with the law,” Kirkwood explained to the jury.
A person named as “Mr. Juarez,” who has a tattoo that reads “FUCK OPD” on his forehead, was there at the time and he voiced outrage that police were putting handcuffs on his uncle, Serrato, the defense attorney asserted.
The jury may get the case to deliberate as soon as tomorrow.