Fire Suspects Will Not Be Charged, D.A.’s Office Says


The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office said Friday it does not have enough evidence to prosecute two firefighters named last fall as suspects in one of the worst wildfires in Southern California history.

The announcement at a Friday afternoon news conference came several weeks after lawyers for the two suspects--Steven R. Shelp and Nicholas A. Durepo--called on prosecutors to either charge their clients or publicly exonerate them.

Shelp, 29, and Durepo, 24, were not arrested, and both have steadfastly maintained their innocence. Both were taken off active firefighting duty after Sheriff Sherman Block publicly said he believed that two firefighters started the Nov. 2 Calabasas/Malibu fire and authorities later identified Shelp and Durepo as those two suspects.


The fire killed three people and caused $375 million in damage to hundreds of homes as it roared through thousands of acres of brush from the San Fernando Valley to the Malibu coast.

“This is a case . . . that at this point in time is complete in terms of the investigation,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Sally Thomas said during a brief news conference. “As in many cases, there are instances where more evidence or witnesses come to light and in that particular situation we would re-evaluate this case.

“These two men are presumed to be innocent. They were presumed to be innocent during the investigation and nothing has changed.”

Thomas, a prosecutor in the special trials division, said in an interview after the news conference that the district attorney’s office went public with its decision not to prosecute because of widespread interest in the case.

“We felt that it was important for the community to know what our decision was,” Thomas said. “There have been hundreds of victims touched by this and . . . we have a lot of compassion for the victims. It was a very extensive investigation, but arson cases are notoriously difficult to investigate.

“If any evidence or witnesses should come together in the future, we will evaluate the case,” Thomas said. “That certainly is not unusual in a murder case.”


Neither Shelp nor Durepo would comment on the case, but they told close friends they were happy and relieved at the news.

“We are just ecstatic for the guys. We stood behind them all the way. We believed in these guys,” said Chris Keenan, a firefighter with the El Toro Fire Department, who spearheaded an effort among firefighters to support Shelp and Durepo.

In a Friday afternoon discussion, Keenan said Durepo--a volunteer with the Manhattan Beach Fire Department--was thrilled with the news, but “too spooked” to talk. “He and his family have never been through anything like this before,” Keenan said.

The allegations against Shelp and Durepo, their lawyers contend, have prevented the men from advancing their careers as firefighters.

Shelp has been taken off active firefighting duties and placed on administrative duty since the investigation went public. Durepo has been taken off active duty as a volunteer fireman in Manhattan Beach.

Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Roger Gillis said the news was “positive” for Shelp but that he will stay on administrative duty with pay while the department continues an internal investigation.

“We would sure like this thing to come to an end, one way or another. The whole department has hoped this guy is innocent, and that firefighters would not be involved in something like this,” Gillis said. “We put them out, not start them. So it’s been a stigma for us since the beginning.”

Manhattan Beach fire officials could not be reached for comment late Friday.

Shelp and Durepo had maintained their innocence from the start, saying they were driving by the fire’s point of origin on Old Topanga Canyon Road about 11 a.m. when they spotted the first signs of a blaze. They told authorities they jumped out of their pickup and hooked up a garden hose that they happened to have with them to a nearby fire hydrant, with the help of a plumber who had a special adapter in his truck. But they told authorities the fire spread too fast, and that they instead concentrated on helping a burn victim who appeared at the scene.

Both men stayed at the scene for several hours, and later cooperated with authorities.

Later, as the case received national attention, the mystery plumber surfaced after his photograph was published in The Times. The “plumber,” actually a swimming pool contractor named Robert Blakeley, said he saw the firefighters arrive on the scene after the blaze started.

Sheriff Block had publicly questioned the existence of such a plumber, and said he believed the two suspects started the fire so they could put it out, become heroes and get paying jobs with area fire departments. Shelp later joined the Los Angeles Fire Department, and Durepo was a volunteer with the Manhattan Beach Fire Department.

Blakeley later helped authorities as a witness in the case, and appeared before a grand jury along with Shelp, Durepo and others.

Despite the district attorney’s announcement, sheriff’s officials Friday stood by their earlier conclusions in the matter. Sheriff’s Homicide Capt. Don Brooks said: “We still feel that we have the right people. That’s why we submitted the request for issuance of a complaint.”

In a statement, the Sheriff’s Department said: “As indicated at the outset, the evidence presented was circumstantial and the district attorney’s office had to decide whether or not to file a criminal case. It has been our responsibility to do a thorough and professional investigation, which we have done.”

One sheriff’s official said privately that his department has wanted charges to be filed against Shelp and Durepo since late last year, when they first presented the case to the district attorney’s office. But like others in the department, he withheld criticism of prosecutors, saying they were the ones who would have to prove the case in court.

“I’m not the guy that has to go in there and prosecute the case,” he said. “If they have a loser going in, they certainly can’t go in there and take their chances.”

Times staff writers Susan Moffat and Kenneth Reich contributed to this article.