Months after several brief and raucous court appearances, the man accused of setting the Holy fire in Orange County pleaded not guilty Wednesday.
Forrest Gordon Clark of Trabuco Canyon was charged with arson days after the wildfire erupted Aug. 6 in Holy Jim Canyon, destroying at least a dozen cabins, forcing widespread evacuations and eventually chewing through more than 23,000 acres.
He was found mentally competent to move forward with court proceedings several weeks ago, Orange County officials said. The judge denied a motion by Clark’s attorney, Nicole Parness, to reduce his bail, which is set at $1 million.
Parness also suggested Wednesday there was another suspect in the case. Citing a report from an arson investigator, the public defender said the chief of the Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department was a possible suspect.
“It’s Michael Milligan, the volunteer fire chief,” Parness said after the arraignment. “He has been listed as a viable suspect, and it has been said he had the motive, the opportunity. There’s a lot more coming out that I’m still looking into. I want the truth.”
Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Jake Jondle said the statements were an “alternative theory” based on one investigator’s suspicions.
“We’re confident Forrest Clark is the correct suspect,” Jondle said.
In a statement after the hearing, the Orange County Fire Authority said it has closed its investigation and remains confident that the responsible suspect is in custody.
“Fire investigators have looked at all physical evidence and witness statements, and we believe there are no additional credible suspects responsible for this fire,” the fire authority said.
In early August, Clark made several outbursts during a brief court appearance that took place when the Holy fire was only 5% contained. At the time, he called the charges against him a lie. He was scheduled to appear in court the day before but refused to leave his jail cell.
Earlier the same week, Clark gave a rambling interview to a television reporter, saying he didn’t know anything about how the fire started.
When Clark appeared for his arraignment Aug. 17, a judge questioned his mental competency and ordered that criminal proceedings be suspended until a psychiatric evaluation could be completed.
Two mental health experts examined Clark, but a judge ordered a third evaluation in October after a conflict in opinion between the previous two doctors. In that review, Clark was found mentally competent, the Orange County district attorney’s office said.
Before his arrest, Clark was a well-known troublemaker among neighbors in the Trabuco Canyon community.
Three weeks before the fire started, Milligan got two texts from Clark: “911 call sheriff,” then, “It’s all going to burn like you planned.”
When the fire began, authorities quickly concluded its cause was arson.