Judge: Fire authority, rescuer can't seek restitution for rescuing hikers

The Orange County Fire Authority and a rescue worker injured trying to find a pair of missing Costa Mesa hikers are not crime victims and cannot seek restitution, a judge ruled Friday.

The fire authority made a motion in Orange County Superior Court seeking restitution in the criminal case against one of the rescued hikers, Nicolas Cendoya, 20, who pleaded guilty to one felony count of methamphetamine possession in exchange for permission to enter a drug-diversion program for first-time offenders.

The OCFA sought to recoup the $55,000 it spent on the search for Cendoya and Kyndall Jack, 19, both of whom attended Costa Mesa High School, after they went missing Easter weekend.

Because the OCFA and the rescuer were not victims in the eyes of the law, they are not entitled to seek restitution, Superior Court Judge Gerald Johnston found.

"While we feel like the judge provided us with a fair hearing, we respectfully disagree with his ruling," said OCFA Division Chief Kris Concepcion.

An attorney for the injured volunteer rescuer, Nick Papageorge's, had sought victim status for his client, who suffered back injuries after falling more than 100 feet searching for Jack and Cendoya. Such status can make it easier to recover civil damages.

"I would like to get compensation for my parents," Papageorge's told NBC-4 outside of the courtroom.

Medical bills that included back surgery totaled $350,000, according to the report.

The issue of recovering the costs will be brought up by the OCFA Board of Directors, which next meets on July 25. It isn't clear whether the restitution will be discussed at the next meeting, Concepcion said.

Officials have estimated the total cost of the search at about $160,000.

If Cendoya complies with the terms set by the court and completes the treatment program he could have the case against him dismissed. Judgment in the case was differed.

The hikers called 911 on a dying cellphone at about 8 p.m. on March 31 asking for help, saying they were lost in the wilderness. Rescuers found Cendoya the night of April 3, and discovered Jack in thick brush the next day.

During the search, authorities said they found 497 milligrams of methamphetamines in Cendoya's car.

Authorities charged Cendoya with one felony count of drug possession in late April.

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