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Man in Fire Photo Backs Suspects’ Story

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A man who says he is the mysterious “plumber” pictured in photographs of the Calabasas/Malibu fire came forward Thursday with an account that could dramatically bolster the statements given by two volunteer firefighters who have been accused of setting that blaze.

“Those guys were fighting the fire, helping out the burn victim,” a man who identified himself as Robert Blakeley said in a telephone interview with The Times on Thursday night. “I got there just after that fire started, and they pulled up behind me.”

Blakeley’s assertion, which comes after a week of disclosures and controversies surrounding the fire investigation, is considered key to the case because the two accused firefighters, Steven R. Shelp and Nicholas A. Durepo, told investigators that an unnamed plumber provided them with a special fixture that allowed them to hook their garden hose to a fire hydrant and thus fight the mounting blaze.

Investigators doubted their account, and Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block has publicly stated that his investigators were unable to find the person who supplied the fixture.

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“One of the questions was how do you hook a garden hose up to a fire hydrant,” Block said at a news conference last week. “The answer that was given to our investigators was that this unidentified plumber happened to be passing by who had the appropriate connection and they borrowed it from the plumber, who went on his way. We were never able to locate the plumber.”

Blakeley, who said he is a contractor who lives in Agoura, said he has been out of town visiting his mother in Oregon and only returned to Southern California on Wednesday night. On Thursday, he said, he saw a photograph in The Times, accompanied by a story noting that investigators were trying to identify the man in the picture.

Blakeley said he then called officials with the arson squad of the Los Angeles City Fire Department to tell them that he was the person they were seeking. He hopes to meet with those officials today, Blakeley said. Fire Department officials were unavailable to confirm Blakeley’s account.

Investigators’ inability to locate the man helped convince investigators that the two men had fabricated the story and actually had set the fire themselves so that they could put it out and then be hailed as heroes.

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In the interview Thursday night, Blakeley said Shelp and Durepo have told the truth about their encounter with him.

Blakeley said that he was among the first people to arrive at the area where the deadly Calabasas/Malibu blaze ignited, and that when he arrived, only about 150 square feet of grass was on fire.

“It had just started,” he said. “There was just a patch of grass burning.”

By the time the fire was extinguished several days later, it had left three people dead and more than 300 homes destroyed.

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According to Blakeley, the two young men drove up behind him as he was surveying the area where the fire took hold. They had a garden hose in their pickup truck but could not fasten it to a nearby fire hydrant because it did not fit.

But Blakeley, a contractor who specializes in underground work, said he had an adapter in his truck. He said he attached the adapter to the fire hydrant and the hose, and then Shelp and Durepo used it in a futile attempt to battle the flames.

“They were doing their best,” said Blakeley, adding that he stayed at the scene for about 45 minutes. During that time, he said, Shelp and Durepo appeared to be assisting fire crews and victims.

Before Blakeley left the scene to check on his own house, which survived the fire, he said he stopped to get a drink of water from the hose. A Times photographer captured that moment, and it is that photograph that led Blakeley to come forward.

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“I remember the guy taking that picture,” he said. “I’m a little surprised it turned out to be this important.”

Blakeley said he took his information first to the Fire Department because he knew that the men under investigation work as firefighters.

Shelp was hired by the Los Angeles City Fire Department after the blaze, and Durepo works as a volunteer firefighter in Manhattan Beach. Both have been taken off active duty until the investigation is concluded.

Neither Shelp nor Durepo was available for comment Thursday.

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Times staff writers Robert J. Lopez and Josh Meyer contributed to this report.


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