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Man Pleads Guilty to Murder in Fire That Killed Child

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 44-year-old man accused of setting a fire that killed a 2-year-old Ventura girl pleaded guilty Thursday to first-degree murder.

Calvin Michael Mitchell also pleaded guilty in Ventura County Municipal Court to attempted premeditated murder for trying to kill a woman who lived across the hall from the apartment where the toddler died, authorities said.

“He felt he didn’t want to put the victims through a trial or a preliminary examination,” said Deputy Public Defender Susan Olson. “I think I can truly say I’ve never seen as much remorse from a client as I have from Mr. Mitchell.”

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Mitchell started a fire at 90 S. Laurel St. on March 24 because he was angry with a woman that he claimed was his former girlfriend, authorities said. But the fire spread from the woman’s apartment to that of toddler Sarah Galka.

The fire also injured Sarah’s mother, Lainie Galka; a roommate, and a 20-month-old girl Galka was baby-sitting. Other tenants in the five-apartment building escaped unharmed.

Mitchell, who has a granddaughter about Sarah’s age, has been distressed by facing Lainie Galka during court appearances, Olson said. He entered the guilty pleas after he was told that there was a possibility of parole, Olson said.

Mitchell pleaded not guilty last week to two charges of arson and a charge of murder under special circumstances, which could carry the death penalty or life without the possibility of parole. The special circumstance was murder committed during an arson.

However, the district attorney’s office filed new charges Thursday after investigators decided that the special circumstance did not apply to Mitchell’s case, Deputy Dist. Atty. Jim Ellison said. The special circumstance requires that there be a purpose to the crime other than killing, Ellison said.

Prosecutors charged the special circumstance because Mitchell told Ventura police that he was just trying to scare the Galkas’ neighbor, who denies that she was ever Mitchell’s girlfriend, by setting the fire, Ellison said.

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“He went into the police station for the first interview and tried to minimize his conduct, so he told them he just wanted to scare her when he set the fire,” Ellison said.

A subsequent investigation left prosecutors with no doubt that Mitchell intended to murder the woman, Ellison said. He had threatened to kill the woman and burn her out of the building, Ellison said.

Mitchell, a mechanic who has lived his whole life in Ventura, told attorneys that he had argued with the woman several times the night before the fire, Olson said.

About 20 minutes before he set the fire, Mitchell went to a gas station five blocks from the apartment building and filled a two-gallon gas can.

“The way he set the fire and the places he put it made it almost impossible for people to get out,” Ellison said.

The district attorney’s office deleted the special circumstance Thursday and added the attempted premeditated murder charge, Ellison said. At sentencing, which is scheduled for August, the arson charges are expected to be dropped, Olson said.

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The murder charge carries a penalty of 25 years to life in prison, and the attempted premeditated murder charge carries a life sentence with the possibility of parole.

Mitchell, who was being held in the Ventura County Jail, had two prior convictions for misdemeanor drunken driving, Olson said.

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