Arson charges against Alberto Serrato, 57, were dismissed in San Diego Superior Court on August 13. Serrato had been accused of re-igniting a brush fire three months ago, while fires raged across North County.
Serrato, a resident of Oceanside, was expected to be processed out of the Vista jail sometime yesterday. The defendant has been held in lieu of $250,000 bail since the day of the alleged incident, May 14.
“The jury hung in the case,” said prosecutor Tracy Prior, after the judge dismissed all charges. “We presented the case to the community, and they were unable to make a decision.”
After the hearing in superior court, the prosecutor stated, “We argued that the case should be retried and that the judge should not exercise his discretion to dismiss.”
Fire crews suppressed the blaze in the riverbed along the 5100 block of North River Road in Oceanside, and then went on to other fires, but residents in the area could see there were still some lingering, smoldering spots, according to testimony at trial earlier this month.
About 3 p.m. that day, two police officers drove up in an unmarked car to begin their assigned duty as traffic control, and they saw Serrato put handfuls of dry brush onto a hotspot “at least twice,” according to their testimony. A tree or tall bush then re-ignited into flame, the officers said.
But defense attorney Debby Kirkwood and the accused man’s nephew Fernando Juarez told the jury that Serrato did not put fuel on the fire. “He was throwing dirt on hotspots,” Fernando Juarez said from the witness box.
The defendant Alberto Serrato briefly took the witness stand and insisted, “I just put some dirt up in there.”
The jury heard three days of testimony and then deliberated more than one full day. On August 7 jurors sent out a note describing themselves as “hopelessly deadlocked”; the count was reportedly 7 for guilty and 5 for not guilty.
After speaking with jurors, the judge declared a mistrial after 5 p.m.
“Although we are disappointed in the outcome,” prosecutor Tracy Prior said in a statement today, “we believe in our justice system, and applaud the officers involved in the case who continue to protect and serve our community.”
“The people have full faith in the police officers and the firefighters that were so heroic on that dangerous day,” the prosecutor said in a released statement.