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A Final Flare-Up From Disastrous 1990 Fire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They were two of the most destructive hours in California history. Between 6 and 8 p.m. on a blistering day--June 27, 1990--a wind-whipped inferno roared out of the rugged hills above town, destroying 427 homes and 11 public buildings, including the Honor Farm jail.

Miraculously, but still tragically, only one person died, a 37-year-old woman who vainly sought shelter from the flames in a creek behind her house.

The $250-million Painted Cave arson fire went unsolved for a decade. But a judge is now considering whether to impose a $2.8-million penalty on a self-described artist/inventor found liable for starting the fire as part of a long-running feud with a neighbor.

Judge Denise deBellefeuille’s ruling, expected this week, may write the final chapter in a tangled saga of petty backwoods rivalries that allegedly raged out of control and threatened an entire city. But it probably won’t satisfy people who remember the terror of that blaze, which one resident called “as close to Armageddon as I want to get.”

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They will no doubt feel that Lenny Ross got away with murder. Or at least that he got off light by escaping a jail sentence. As with O.J. Simpson, Ross was found culpable in a civil trial, after the county decided it did not have enough evidence to file a murder charge.

Sheriff Jim Thomas said he is relieved that somebody is finally paying a price for the catastrophe, which sheriff’s officials said might be the “largest crime loss ever in the history of the United States.”

Ross, 48, who earns a living making solar-powered butterflies and selling them at craft fairs, maintains his innocence. He said the fire was pinned on him as part of a conspiracy to steal his land.

“My biggest problem,” he said in a parched, low voice in an interview at an IHOP restaurant, “is my story is so fantastic, who’s going to believe it?”

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He was right about one thing. It was about the land, the love of it, the lust for it, and the willingness to fight to preserve it.

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Calls about disputes between neighbors, said Sheriff Thomas, are among the most unpleasant a cop receives. They’re usually over things that seem trivial--but are anything but to the people involved.

“There is tremendous hate in these situations,” Thomas said. And so it was up in the hills of Los Padres National Forest north of Santa Barbara.

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Over the years, a number of reclusive types had moved in and scraped out a living in the steep, poison ivy-covered landscape below San Marcos Pass. Lenny Ross had 40 acres at the end of a tortuous, 3 1/2-mile dirt lane winding through a steep canyon.

Ross is not a muscular man; he stands about medium height, has long hair in a knot behind his head and a full beard. He has an intense, sidelong way of looking at you, and that morning at IHOP he wore a wrinkled white shirt and carried a backpack that made him look more like an overage college student than a figure of infamy.

Though not physically imposing, he is good with his hands. He rebuilt an old shack into a serviceable house. A short distance away is a concrete bunker-like shed where he assembles his butterflies, whose wings flap under power provided by a solar cell.

Ross values--and guards--his privacy. When a visitor hiked in to see him last week, he was warned to “shout out” as he approached to avoid being shot.

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Many of the arguments that flared up among Ross and his neighbors were over one thing: the dirt road that was their lifeline to the outside world.

There were complaints, according to officials, that Ross left cars and other junk on the road. One time, the Sheriff’s Department was called to settle a dispute over work that Ross and others were doing on a bridge spanning a creek on someone else’s property. Ross filed suit against an avocado ranch he said had drained the ground water.

But the man with whom Ross had the most serious problems was Michael Linthicum. By 1996, sheriff’s officials had documented 22 complaints between the two. Ross said that his phone line was cut repeatedly, that dirt was put into the gas tank of his tractor and that the lug nuts on his car were loosened.

Linthicum, who has lived in the area for 26 years, is wary when he talks about Ross. “It’s sad that there are people like that,” he said.

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Just four months before the fire, Linthicum’s property insurance lapsed. Ross heard about that, said a former girlfriend who later testified against him.

According to a search warrant affidavit, Peggy Finley said Ross was so frustrated by the long-running conflict with his neighbor that he talked about killing Linthicum. One plan, Finley said, involved his taking Linthicum up in a 1946 Cessna that Ross kept at the Santa Barbara Airport and pushing him out once they were over the sea.

A 106-Degree Day in a Drought Year

In 1990, Southern California was laboring through a drought year. In the mountains above Santa Barbara, the brush was dry as tinder and thick with 35 years of growth since the last fire. On June 27, the temperature topped out at 106.

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The fire started about 6 p.m., near Old San Marcos Road and California 154, the back route into Santa Barbara from the Santa Ynez wine country. It was also near Linthicum’s property. Pushed by high winds, the fire whipped into an inferno. Both of Linthicum’s houses were destroyed, while Ross’ property, which lay upwind of the fire, was untouched.

The fire raced into the lower, more densely populated region in minutes. Buildings were consumed faster than they could be counted. The fire burned the Honor Farm, a laundry building and a dozen businesses.

At 7:42 p.m., flames jumped U.S. 101. In less than two hours, the Painted Cave fire had raced 3.8 miles from the mountains to the Pacific. The state fire marshal called it the “fastest-moving fire of its type ever in the United States.”

At 8 p.m., winds subsided and firefighters gained the upper hand.

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The sun rose the next day on an apocalyptic scene. Over much of the burn zone, all that remained were charred cars and chimneys looking like isolated sentries. The body of Andrea Lang Gurka, a local artist, was found in a creek the next day.

An arson task force was formed. Investigators were not just seeking a fire bug but, with Gurka’s death, a killer. The inquiry went on until, in the words of the “after-action report,” “every possible lead was exhausted.”

After Five Years, a Secret Shared

That’s how things stood for more than five years. Gurka’s husband, Michael, started a scholarship fund; Linthicum and the others rebuilt. Santa Barbara moved on.

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Then Finley shared a secret with her minister in Northern California: A man she used to live with claimed he started a big fire in Santa Barbara. Finley lived with Ross for five years, but they had broken up acrimoniously and were engaged in a child custody dispute, according to court documents.

Finley said Ross told her about the fire one night when they were making love while high on Ecstasy. All he wanted to do, she said, was burn out the hated Linthicum, but the fire “got out of hand.”

After some discussion, Finley signed a waiver of confidentiality, freeing the minister to tell a church lawyer, who contacted authorities in Santa Barbara. The case was reopened. This time, Sheriff Thomas put top homicide investigators in charge.

Ross told detectives that he spent the day of the fire riding his bicycle along the beach and working on his plane at the airport. But investigators believed that they could link Ross to the fire through Finley’s account, as well as his blue 1982 Subaru. Witnesses saw a similar car parked where the fire started. A woman named Melinda Miller said she saw a man in a blue cap at the wheel.

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When detectives searched Ross’ property, they said, they found a blue ball cap in his shed. Sparing no expense, detectives flew in a noted police sketch artist to work with Miller. To some, the sketch looked just like Ross; others weren’t sure.

There were additional bits of evidence, but the case was old and memories had faded. When detectives went to Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon, he refused to file murder charges. He didn’t believe they had a strong enough case to convince a jury.

Sheriff Thomas disagreed with his good friend Sneddon. “I believe there was enough” to go to trial, he said. “But I don’t have to try it.”

In all probability, that would have been the end of the Painted Cave fire case, had Ross not sued the county over the search of his property. Frustrated county officials sued him right back for the costs of fighting the fire and the loss of county property.

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This tactic made it much easier to connect the fire to Ross. In criminal court, a verdict must be unanimous and the jury must be convinced of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil court, the jury would only have to believe that a preponderance of evidence indicated Ross started the fire. A 9-3 vote is all it takes to find someone liable.

By the time of trial this summer, the judge had thrown out Ross’ complaints, so all that was left was the county’s suit. What sealed his fate, observers said, was not evidence but his conduct on the stand.

“He was his usual smarmy, smirky self,” said Jake Stoddard, the dapper attorney who handled the county’s case.

Under Stoddard’s prodding, Ross lost his temper and showed the jury a darker side. He also hurt himself when he talked about being accused of other felonies. That allowed Stoddard to introduce testimony from another former girlfriend, who said Ross told her he set a fire at a motorcycle shop he owned in 1978.

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After a two-week trial, the jury found Ross culpable by a vote of 9 to 3.

Hanging over the Ross trial was the ghost of the O.J. Simpson case. After Simpson was acquitted in criminal court, he was found liable for the deaths of Ronald Lyle Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson in a civil trial.

The difference is that then, the victims’ families were the plaintiffs. In the Painted Cave fire case, the government went after Ross in civil court without bothering to file criminal charges. As a result, Ross now finds himself identified as the man behind a horrific crime even though the district attorney felt the evidence was too weak to convict. Ross’ attorney, Barbara Carroll, called the tactic “rather unusual.”

USC law professor Michael Brennan said he has no quarrel with the county “defending itself.”

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“If [Ross] hadn’t sued first, none of this would have happened,” Stoddard said.

Now Ross faces the loss of the one thing he fought so hard to protect--his land.

The county’s request for $2.8 million, filed Friday, includes the loss of the Honor Farm, the laundry building and $400,000 worth of county vehicles. Carroll said Ross can’t pay. He has no real assets except the land, she said, and that is so remote it won’t command anything like the prices of property in Santa Barbara.

Some in town say Ross was hoist on his own petard. Asked if it was a mistake to sue, he said: “I don’t regret suing. I don’t want to be in the position I’m in, but every man should stand up.”

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Sheriff Thomas, for one, is convinced Ross did it. “There is no doubt in my mind Lenny Ross started that fire,” he said.

He does have one regret, though. He believes he should have put his homicide detectives in charge back in 1990.

Though Sneddon could still file charges, some evidence used in the civil case can’t be admitted in a criminal trial.

“He should be in prison,” Thomas said of Ross. “And he won’t be unless something else comes up.”

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Still, the civil court ruling satisfied the sheriff. “No matter what we do, we can’t bring back the dead. But it’s important for the community to know we haven’t given up.”

The man who lost the most, however, remains unsatisfied. If Ross killed Andrea, why is he still walking around? asked Michael Gurka.

And there’s where the comparison to the Simpson case collapses.

“I don’t think people are worried about [Simpson] killing their wives.” In Santa Barbara, he said, 100,000 people are left wondering “if there’s somebody up there [in the hills] who might start a fire.”

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Santa Barbara Fire

The 1990 Painted Cave fire in Santa Barbara killed one person and destroyed 427 homes, causing $250 million in damage.


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