Fernando Juarez, the defendant's nephew
  • Fernando Juarez, the defendant's nephew
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“I called my uncle Albert up, said, ‘Hey, there’s a fire over here, come check it out,’” Fernando Juarez testified for the defense during the trial of his uncle, Alberto Beltran Serrato, on August 6.

Serrato, 57, is accused of arson during a series of fires raging throughout San Diego County three months ago.

The witness said he went to the 5100 block of North River Road on May 14 after his mother phoned and told him a fire was blazing in the riverbed there, near her home. Juarez said he then invited his uncle to “Come out and check out the fire and shit….

“Everybody was out there, watching,” Juarez said from the witness box. He was aware when Oceanside police showed up, he said. “I know them officers, so I know they are in an undercover car. Gang unit.”

Juarez said he heard officers call out to his uncle. “They told him to climb down from the slope.” At first, Juarez said he thought his uncle was being arrested for drunk in public. “After they took uncle to court, I drunk his beer.”

When cops took control of Serrato, Juarez said bystanders remarked how unfair it was. “We was just speaking out loud. Freedom of speech, you know?” Juarez said he and others demanded to know why his uncle was being arrested. He said he was surprised when police said it was for arson.

“They said they seen him throwing brush onto the fire.” But Juarez told the jury that his uncle did not put fuel on the fire. “He was throwing dirt on hotspots — that’s little branches that are still on fire.”

Defense produced more than 70 photos that were taken by Juarez’s cell phone that day, from 2:50 until 3:12 p.m.

However, prosecutor Tracy Prior went down a list of the photos with their time-stamps attached; she said this proved that Juarez first took photos of the burned-out area and then he captured images of the brief flare-up that his uncle caused, documenting the alleged arson incident.

On cross-examination, Juarez agreed with the prosecutor that he does not like the Oceanside Police Department. “I don’t.” And he confirmed that he has a tattoo over his right eye that reads, “FUCK OPD.” Juarez said he acquired many tattoos when he was in prison, but, “I don’t know the date.”

A moment later, Juarez corrected himself. “I like OPD, it’s just the officers. It’s the officers who are the dicks.”

Serrato briefly took the witness stand and said it was not brush that he picked up, “I just put some dirt up in there.”

He did confirm that he told police, “I say, okay, I threw something on there. I didn’t say brush.” Serrato said one of the officers told him they had video of him. “I just went along with them, ’cause they say they got a video.”

Serrato confirmed he may have used strong language. “Yes, I use the f word a lot. I go, ‘Why you always effing with us?’” But he said he has no problem with the Oceanside Police Department. “I do get along with some of them.” Although, “There are some that just like to harass people for no reason.”

Defense attorney Deborah Kirkwood told the jury that Oceanside police are biased. “I’m not saying they’re lying, I’m saying they’re mistaken.”

The jury began deliberating the case on August 6 in San Diego’s North County Superior Court.

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Visduh Aug. 7, 2014 @ 11:23 a.m.

Wow, what a sympathetic and credible witness! Just what your usual Vista jury will believe, a tattooed ex-con with a lousy attitude toward law enforcement. I suppose the defense had to use him, having no other witnesses who would try to spin it in favor of the defendant. My guess is that they'll come back fast with a conviction.


Eva Knott Aug. 7, 2014 @ 3:49 p.m.

The jury began deliberations after the lunch break yesterday, August 6. Today they requested to hear read-back of testimony, and that has been going on for hours. Will let you know if the jury comes to unanimous verdict, or if the court declares mistrial.


Eva Knott Aug. 7, 2014 @ 5:43 p.m.

Superior Court Judge William Dato declared a mistrial today, August 7, 2014. The jury had sent out a note late in the afternoon, declaring they were hopelessly deadlocked: 7 for guilty and 5 for not-guilty. Then the judge inquired of jurors, to determine if a unanimous decision might be possible, but the jury was dismissed at 5:17 p.m. Attorneys will meet in the same courtroom tomorrow afternoon to determine the next course of action. Defendant Alberto Serrato remains in custody, in lieu of $250,000 bail.


Visduh Aug. 7, 2014 @ 6:01 p.m.

Sooprise, sooprise, sooprise, Sorgent Corter! (That's an obscure reference to an old TV series called Gomer Pyle, USMC.) I am surprised. I'd have thought that the cops testimony would have carried the day. But, the description of the arrest and the actions that preceded it always seemed a bit off to me. Wonder where the DA goes from here? This case seems anything but open-and-shut, even for a Vista jury. We shall see, shall we not?


Eva Knott Aug. 8, 2014 @ 8:46 a.m.

Attorney Deb Kirkwood gave the most vigorous defense, casting doubt on the veracity of police witnesses from the earliest point, including voir dire. An important element throughout jury selection was the promise that jurors would give equal weight to defense and prosecution witnesses.



Visduh Aug. 8, 2014 @ 3:06 p.m.

The poor reputation of the OPD may be catching up with it. Generally juries empaneled at the Vista court house tend to believe the cops, look askance at excuses, and take a hard line on offenses. So, this defense attorney did her job.

I have a hunch the DA won't retry this, but may want to get a guilty plea to a misdemeanor, just to "close the case." However, this defense attorney may not agree to any sort of plea deal.


Eva Knott Aug. 14, 2014 @ 11:07 a.m.

San Diego Superior Court judge William S. Dato dismissed all charges against Alberto Serrato, today, August 14, 2014. The jury had declared themselves hopelessly deadlocked, the vote was 7 for guilty and 5 for not-guilty, late on August 7, 2014. Look for story update soon.


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