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Judge dismisses two charges against Holy fire arson suspect but rules trial can move forward

Judge dismisses two charges against Holy fire arson suspect but rules trial can move forward
Forrest Gordon Clark is accused of setting the August fire that destroyed 23,000 acres in Orange and Riverside counties. (Orange County Sheriff's Department)

An Orange County Superior Court judge ruled Thursday that there is enough evidence for a man accused of setting the Holy fire to stand trial on arson charges.

Judge Gregg L. Prickett dismissed two felony counts of resisting arrest that had been filed against Forrest Gordon Clark, 51, at the request of prosecutors because of a lack of evidence. Clark still faces four felony charges, including arson and criminal threats. He has pleaded not guilty and is being held in county jail in lieu of $1-million bail.

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The Trabuco Canyon resident was arrested a day 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 in Orange and Riverside counties.

When authorities questioned Clark about the blaze, he described a “lucid dream” about his neighbor — Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department Chief Michael Milligan — pouring gas through a cabin’s broken window, according to testimony from Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Donald Ford given Wednesday, the first day of Clark’s preliminary hearing.

However, Clark also told other versions of the dream in which another neighbor or “the Mexicans” set the fire, authorities said. Milligan has denied involvement in the fire.

Ford testified that he thinks the fire began in the general area of a cabin owned by a neighbor whom Clark had previously threatened, rather than inside the cabin. He said the flames likely ignited outside before the building caught fire and spread to nearby brush.

Authorities initially thought the blaze started inside the cabin, but Ford said he based his updated theory on reports from callers who dialed 911, saying they saw flames just outside the structure before it was consumed. Investigators said they are confident the fire was sparked intentionally, but they don’t have direct physical evidence linking Clark to the blaze.

Ford testified that he concluded Clark had set the fire because of his statements to investigators and Clark’s alleged threats to his neighbor, with whom he apparently had a long-running feud.

U.S. Forest Service Officer Albert Banh said when he arrived in the area the day of the fire, he heard Clark screaming.

“He appeared to be arguing with those around him,” he said.

Clark initially denied having set the fire, but then told Banh that “maybe” he did it, Banh testified.

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, and 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.

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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.”

Times staff writer Alejandra Reyes-Velarde and City News Service contributed to this report.

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