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2 Teen-Agers Held in Fires at Schools : Questioned in the Arson That Caused Over $1-Million Damage in Escondido

Times Staff Writer

Escondido police took two teen-age boys into custody Monday afternoon as suspects in three Escondido school fires set Saturday night that did more that $1 million in damage.

One of the boys is a 16-year-old student at Valley Continuation High School, the other is a 17-year-old who attends Escondido High School, Lt. Earl Callander said. They were in Juvenile Hall Monday night on suspicion of three counts of arson, Callander said.

‘Three Different Sources’

Callander said the information that led to the arrests came from “three different sources.” Police are still trying to determine a motive, he said.

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Damage estimates in the three arson fires climbed above $1 million Monday as Escondido police detectives joined fire investigators in probing for evidence at the three widely separated fire sites at Escondido High School, Orange Glen High School and Del Dios Middle School.

Escondido Union High School District Supt. John L. Cooper III said the major fire damage to the Escondido High multipurpose room, a 5,000-square-foot building which housed the cafeteria, food preparation areas and a stage, amounted to $750,000, with loss of the contents still to be totaled.

At Orange Glen High, where two classrooms were gutted and others damaged, structural damage was estimated at $250,000 and the loss of the contents will add to that, Cooper said. One classroom contained more than two decades of papers and books belonging to psychology teacher Darwin Bree.

A third fire broke out during the three-hour period Saturday night in a Del Dios Middle School portable classroom, where damages are estimated at $35,000. A witness told firemen he saw someone leave the fenced school grounds at about the time the Del Dios fire was discovered.

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Three Escondido Police Department detectives are assigned to the arson investigations, Callander said.

Callander said fingerprints were found around windows used to enter the buildings at all three fire sites. Graffiti found near the Escondido High fire site were “not there before the fire, according to school officials,” Callander said. Similar graffiti were found at the scene of a trailer fire March 10 on the Escondido High School campus.

Pointing out that graffiti are common “all over town,” Callander said investigators were not concentrating their efforts on the graffiti markings, which he said indicated “no particular group” or gang.

The high school district’s insurer has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the arsonists.

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Fires Set Differently

Different methods were used to start the three fires, Callander said, “and we still have a lot to do to tie up all the ends before determining that the fires were all set by the same person or persons, although that seems the logical conclusion.”

Ray Blair, interim Escondido city manager, said he had talked to Police Chief Vince Jimno about the arson investigation and was convinced that the department “will do a very competent job. In fact, I have confidence that they will find the perpetrators.”

Despite the heavy damage at the two high schools, Cooper said classes will begin on schedule Monday. The schools are now closed for spring vacation.

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“We won’t be serving hot lunches, of course, for about three weeks,” Cooper said. The kitchen at Escondido High, which prepares meals for all three of the district’s high schools, suffered extensive smoke and water damage, but none of the equipment was damaged, he said.

However, until cleanup is complete and state Health Department inspectors certify that food preparation may begin, students on the three campuses will be given cold sack lunches, he said.

The worst damage occurred in the theater part of the Escondido High multipurpose building where drama instructor Robert Johnson reported “98% of the building is demolished.”

“The roof over the stage is gone. The grid work that held up the lights is gone. All the seating, the costumes, the props. Everything is gone,” Johnson said.

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Johnson’s students were in rehearsal for “Thanks a Million,” an original musical production that he and his students had created and had planned to present in the now-gutted theater in May.

“They aren’t driving me off my own campus,” Johnson said. “We’ll rent a tent, a circus tent.”

He said offers of help have come in from students, ex-students and the community, “and we will be needing it.”

But, the show will go on, in a tent, with a couple of flatbed trucks for a stage and improvised lighting and sound, Johnson said. He’s busy now notifying his 31-member cast and eight or so technicians.

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“The things we lost were material things,” he said. “We still have the enthusiasm of the students and their dedication to the project.”


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