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Suspects in ’93 Fire File Claims : Law: Firefighters named in Malibu blaze list defamation action against county and sheriff as prelude to a suit.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two firefighters who were publicly implicated as arson suspects in last year’s deadly Malibu blaze--but never prosecuted--have filed legal claims against Los Angeles County and Sheriff Sherman Block, saying Block ruined their careers through politically motivated grandstanding.

But even as Nicholas A. Durepo and Steven R. Shelp pursue their defamation case, a federal arson investigator said Thursday that they remain suspects in a continuing probe into the Nov. 2 brush fire, which killed three people and destroyed more than 300 homes, causing an estimated $325 million in damage.

“We have not eliminated them as suspects,” said Larry Cornelison, who supervises the arson-explosives task force of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Los Angeles.

He would not elaborate, declining to say whether there were other suspects or give other details, but said the bureau was investigating the fire “on the premise that it was arson.” If enough evidence is collected, it will be presented to a federal grand jury, Cornelison said.

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Larry R. Feldman, a lawyer for Durepo and Shelp, contended they were innocent victims of Block, who Feldman characterized as a powerful public figure who was seeking reelection when he prematurely disclosed on national TV that the two were under suspicion.

Even after the district attorney’s office decided not to prosecute Shelp and Durepo last July, citing a lack of evidence, Block continued to harm the men’s reputations by refusing to admit he was wrong, Feldman said.

“The sheriff is stubborn and he gets away with this and most people are just happy to be out of the criminal system and let it go,” said Feldman, who filed the claims against Block and the county on Tuesday.

“This is a real test case to determine whether we’re going to hold public officials with all this power responsible for ruining people’s lives.”

In addition to the decision by the district attorney’s office, a county grand jury also declined to indict the firefighters last summer after weeks of testimony--including that of a contractor who corroborated their alibi when he said he provided a special adapter needed to connect their water hose to a hydrant.

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The two young firefighters--Durepo is 24 and Shelp is 29--have steadfastly maintained their innocence, saying they were driving along Old Topanga Canyon Road in Calabasas, off-duty, when the fire began and they tried to put it out with equipment they had at hand.

News crews arriving at the site of the rapidly spreading flames photographed them hosing down a burn victim as they labored to extinguish the beginning of the blaze that went on to consume thousands of acres of brush between Topanga Canyon and Malibu.

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But Block, when he identified the two men as prime suspects in the case, said arson investigators had strong circumstantial evidence against them and believed they had set the fire so they could put it out, look like heroes and enhance their fledgling careers.

Although he did not name the two during a nationally televised interview May 4, Block described them and their actions in sufficient detail to enable news reporters to deduce who they were and publicize their identities, Feldman said.

He also noted that Block’s interview on NBC took place a month before he was up for reelection.

“He didn’t name them by name but he named them by description, so within minutes, every news station and print media knew exactly who it was,” Feldman said.

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Feldman said he did not blame news organizations for his clients’ ordeal because “their job is to print what the sheriff said.”

He also credited news reporters and photographers with tracking down a picture of the long-anonymous contractor, who authorities earlier dismissed as nonexistent. It was the publication of the photo--not the Sheriff’s Department’s investigation--that brought forward the contractor and his crucial testimony supporting the two men’s version of events, Feldman said.

“And then afterwards, instead of being a gentleman and saying ‘I was wrong,’ he just stonewalls it,” Feldman said of Block. “He won’t admit his error.”

Block still stood fast this week, saying through a spokesman that his department’s investigation had been “complete, thorough and professional.”

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“He never named them, the media did,” said Deputy George Ducoulombier.

The administrative claims filed against Block and the county this week--for defamation, invasion of privacy and denial of due process--are a necessary step before Shelp and Durepo can sue them.

If the county does not respond to the claims within 45 days, the firefighters can file suit in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Durepo, who lives in the South Bay area, was working as a part-time reservist for the Manhattan Beach and Culver City fire departments when news of the arson investigation against him led to his termination at both departments, Feldman said.

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He is now performing a variety of odd jobs--"from cleaning pools to working in retail stores"--to earn a living, according to Feldman.

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Shelp of Northridge was a recently hired Los Angeles City firefighter who was confined to desk duty as a result of Block’s disclosures, although he had been valedictorian of his fire academy class, the lawyer said.

Even though he still has a job and a salary, Feldman said, Shelp has no chance to earn overtime pay, his career is indefinitely stalled and he is “overall frustrated.”

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Both men tried unsuccessfully to get back their old duties after the district attorney declined to prosecute, Feldman said.

“What they want,” he said, “are their reputations restored and their careers back.”


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