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Firefighters Named in Malibu Blaze File Claims Against County : Arson: They say Sheriff Block ruined their careers by releasing information that led to their identification by media. A federal official says the two are still suspects.

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, saying Sheriff Sherman Block ruined their careers with 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 November 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 federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Los Angeles.

He would not elaborate, declining to say whether there are other suspects, but said the bureau is 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 that they were innocent victims of Sheriff Block, whom Feldman characterized as a powerful public figure who was seeking reelection when he prematurely disclosed on national TV that they 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.

“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,” the lawyer said.

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.

Durepo, 24, and Shelp, 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 tried to put out the beginning of the blaze that went on to consume thousands of acres of brush between Topanga Canyon and Malibu.

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

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.

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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,” Feldman said.

He 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 publication of the photo that brought forward the contractor and his crucial testimony supporting the two men’s version of events, Feldman said.

“And then afterward, instead of being a gentleman and saying ‘I was wrong,’ he just stonewalls it,” Feldman said of Block.

Block stood fast, 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,” Deputy George Ducoulombier said of Block.

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

Durepo, from 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 led to his termination at both departments, Feldman said. He is now doing odd jobs, “from cleaning pools to working in retail stores,” Feldman said.

Shelp, of the San Fernando Valley, was a recently hired Los Angeles firefighter who was confined to desk duty as a result of Block’s disclosures, the lawyer said.

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Shelp still has a job and salary, Feldman said, but his career is indefinitely stalled.


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