Arson Investigation Continues; Firefighter Pleads Not Guilty

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The way neighbors and friends tell it, nothing was more important to Robert Schickel Jr. than his job fighting fires.

Schickel had just completed his paramedic training and was eager to advance his five-year career with the Orange County Fire Authority.

The 29-year-old Yorba Linda man, arrested last weekend and charged with arson in Riverside County in a case involving his own car, has pleaded not guilty and posted bail Wednesday from Riverside County Jail.

When he wasn't working full time at the Stanton station, he was on call as a volunteer for the firehouse two blocks from his home. But one neighbor said Schickel always stressed that he was "a professional firefighter," not just a volunteer.

"He's always talking about work. It makes him taller," said the neighbor, who lives on the quiet cul-de-sac where Schickel bought a home two years ago. "That's his life."

In addition to Schickel, Ken Dobbins, 38, also a volunteer firefighter for the Yorba Linda station, was arrested last weekend on suspicion of arson. Dobbins is suspected of setting fire to an abandoned house in Yorba Linda in 1993. Schickel is charged with setting his own black Trans Am on fire in Riverside last year.

After Schickel's prized car burned, neighbors said, he recounted his harried efforts to douse the fire, telling them the flames almost spread to desert brush and showing pictures that he had taken of the burned hulk for insurance purposes.

On Wednesday, Orange County Fire Authority investigators and officials from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms spent more than four hours at Schickel's home. The investigators left the house in late afternoon with cameras and a half-filled garbage bag.

"We're conducting a joint investigation," one county investigator said.

Schickel was placed on paid administrative leave Friday, the day before his arrest, fire officials said. Dobbins was a "paid-call" firefighter, working on a volunteer basis for about $7 an hour. He has been dropped from the list, said Capt. Dan Young, spokesman for the Fire Authority.

Last year, Schickel, who is single, rented a room to Dobbins after Dobbins separated from his wife, said Mary Silva, whose husband is a career firefighter and volunteers at the firehouse with her 19-year-old son.

Silva said firefighters who know Schickel have been largely supportive of him.

"There was nothing to Robert more important than his job. Nothing," she said. "That's why I don't believe this."

Neighbors said Schickel also has moonlighted as a bouncer at a local strip club,

The 30 firefighters who volunteer at the local fire station and must live within three minutes of it form a family of sorts, Silva said. About four of those volunteers also work as career firefighters at other county stations, she said.

"Even though it's a volunteer service, it's an extension of your family," Silva said. "Until they can prove in a court of law that Schickel did this, we will support him."

Firefighters at the station were shocked earlier this week not only by the arrests but by the discovery that smoke detectors installed at the firehouse late Friday were really surveillance cameras, said a firefighter who did not want to be named. The firefighters, he said, assumed it had something to do with the arson investigation.

"There's no doubt about it. They're cameras," said the firefighter. "They have coaxial cable running from them, the same kind of cable that runs from the back of your TV. I pulled one smoke detector down and there was a device in there that looked like a camera lens."

The firefighter said the devices were removed Wednesday.

"People just don't know what's going on," he said. "If I were to put it all in a nutshell, we donate all our time for years and years to get these engines out. It's a big sacrifice on our personal lives. A lot of people are hurt. They think, 'Why can't they trust us?' "

Young said fire officials could not comment on the matter because of the investigation.

"From this point on, [investigators] really can't get into any details," he said.Dobbins was released on bail from the Orange County Jail earlier this week and has not yet been charged. His arraignment is set for Jan. 22, and Deputy Dist. Atty. Mike Fell said he does not have to make a decision about charges until then.

"When I get all the investigative reports I will make a decision," said Fell, who reviews all felony arson cases for the Orange County district attorney's office. "Basically, what they're doing right now is tying up some loose ends."

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