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South Dakota Firefighter Killed Battling Northeastern California Wildfire

August 1st, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

David Ruhl, a South Dakota firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service,
was killed Thursday while fighting the Frog Fire in Modoc County.

Ruhl’s permanent position was Engine Captain on the Mystic Ranger District of the Black Hills National Forest in Rapid City, South Dakota. He was married with two children. He worked for the U.S. Forest Service for 14 years and previously served in the U.S. Coast Guard.

Late on Friday, Governor Jerry Brown and decreed that the capitol flags be flown at half mast, and issued a statement that read in part:

“Anne and I were saddened to learn of the tragic death of U.S. Forest Service Firefighter Dave Ruhl who left his home state to help protect one of California’s majestic forests. Firefighter Ruhl will be remembered for his service and bravery and we extend our deepest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues with the U.S. Forest Service.”

The Frog Fire that Ruhl was helping to battle is one of a dozen large wildfires burning in California.

Governor Brown has declared a state of emergency.

We at WLA join the governor and David Ruhl’s family, friends and firefighting colleagues in grieving for his loss.

Posted in Fire, Life in general | No Comments »

Prosecutorial Misconduct, Sasha and Richard, False Confessions, and Penalizing States that Fail to Protect Foster Kids

February 2nd, 2015 by Taylor Walker


Federal judge Alex Kozinski railed against unchecked prosecutorial misconduct in California’s court system while hearing oral arguments for a habeas petition last month.

Lower courts had upheld a murder-for-hire conviction despite having established that both a jail informant and prosecutor had provided false testimony—both saying that the informant had not been given a deal (he had). The prosecutor was not sanctioned, nor did the state bar revoke his license.

Kozinski, along with judges Kim Wardlaw and William Fletcher, accused California judges of continuously overlooking prosecutorial misdeeds and choosing not to overturn flawed verdicts. (This is not the first time Kozinski has zeroed in on this issue.) Kozinski said the panel would rule on the issue themselves, threatening to name names, if the California Attorney General’s Office—which had tried to keep transcripts away from the Ninth Circuit Court—did not stop fighting to uphold the conviction.

Kozinski directed Supervising Deputy Attorney General Kevin Vienna to notify California Attorney General Kamala Harris of the controversial particulars of the case, saying, “Get ahold of the Attorney General, get ahold of your supervisor, and see whether they really want to stick by a conviction that was obtained by lying prosecutors and that was maintained in the Court of Appeal after the Attorney General’s office fought tooth and nail to keep out a transcript that would have shown the perfidy of the prosecutors…” The AG’s office chose to discontinue its defense of the conviction.

The LA Times’ Maura Dolan has the story. Here’s a clip:

The January hearing in Pasadena, posted online under new 9th Circuit policies, provided a rare and critical examination of a murder case in which prosecutors presented false evidence but were never investigated or disciplined.

The low-profile case probably would have gone unnoticed if not for the video, which attorneys emailed to other attorneys and debated on blogs.

In a series of searing questions, the three judges expressed frustration and anger that California state judges were not cracking down on prosecutorial misconduct. By law, federal judges are supposed to defer to the decisions of state court judges.

Prosecutors “got caught this time but they are going to keep doing it because they have state judges who are willing to look the other way,” Kozinski said.

Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen said the judges’ questions and tone showed they had lost patience with California courts. State judges are supposed to refer errant lawyers, including prosecutors, to the state bar for discipline, but they rarely do, Uelmen said.

“It is a cumulative type thing,” Uelmen said. “The 9th Circuit keeps seeing this misconduct over and over again. This is one way they can really call attention to it.”

A 2010 report by the Northern California Innocence Project cited 707 cases in which state courts found prosecutorial misconduct over 11 years. Only six of the prosecutors were disciplined, and the courts upheld 80% of the convictions in spite of the improprieties, the study found.


In late 2013, 16-year-old Richard Thomas, egged on by friends, set 18-year-old Sasha Fleischman’s skirt on fire on an Oakland city bus. Sasha, who identifies as agender, was burned so badly in the incident that they had to undergo several surgeries and spent weeks in the hospital.

Richard, who is black, was charged as an adult with aggravated mayhem and assault with intent to cause great bodily injury, with hate-crime sentence enhancements.

Richard was a well-liked kid who grew up in a turbulent East Oakland neighborhood, with his mom, siblings, and cousins. In his 16 years, Richard experienced an extraordinary amount of trauma. In 2008, Richard’s aunt was murdered. In 2013, Richard’s best friend, his “twin,” was gunned down while sitting in a car. When Richard, reeling from the loss, started doing poorly in school and skipping class, he asked for help from the school’s attendance compliance officer.

After the fire, Richard told investigating officers he was homophobic. He told them he never thought the skirt would catch on fire like it did, that he only thought it would singe a little and go out quickly, and meant it as a prank. Richard was forced to take a plea deal of seven years behind bars with removal of the hate-crime enhancements and mayhem charge. His only alternative was to go to trial and risk receiving a maximum of life imprisonment, a sentence severely disproportionate to the crime, and one he would not have faced if he had been tried as a juvenile.

Dashka Slater’s phenomenal New York Times Magazine story illuminates both sides of Sasha and Richard’s double tragedy. Here are a couple of clips, but you really must read it in its entirety:

It was close to 5 o’clock on the afternoon of Nov. 4, 2013, and Sasha Fleischman was riding the 57 bus home from school. An 18-year-old senior at a small private high school, Sasha wore a T-shirt, a black fleece jacket, a gray newsboy cap and a gauzy white skirt. For much of the long bus ride through Oakland, Calif., Sasha — who identifies as agender, neither male nor female — had been reading a paperback copy of “Anna Karenina,” but eventually the teenager drifted into sleep, skirt draped over the edge of the bus seat.

As Sasha slept, three teenage boys laughed and joked nearby. Then one surreptitiously flicked a lighter. The skirt went up in a ball of flame. Sasha leapt up, screaming, “I’m on fire!” Two other passengers threw Sasha to the ground and extinguished the flames, but Sasha’s legs were left charred and peeling. Taken by ambulance to a San Francisco burn unit, Sasha would spend the next three and a half weeks undergoing multiple operations to treat the second- and third-degree burns that ran from thigh to calf.

Richard Thomas, the 16-year-old boy who lit the skirt on fire, was arrested the following day. Citing the severity of the crime, the Alameda County district attorney, Nancy O’Malley, charged Thomas as an adult, stripping him of the protections — including anonymity — customarily afforded to juveniles. Charged with two felonies, each with a hate-crime clause that increased the time he would serve if convicted, Thomas faced the possibility of life imprisonment.


On Nov. 8, four days after lighting Sasha’s skirt on fire, Richard wrote the teenager a letter.

“Dear Victum,” it began. “I apoligize for my actions, for the pain that I brought to you and your family. I was wrong for what I did. I was wrong. I had no reason to do that to you I don’t know what was going through my head at that time. Im not a monster, I have a big heart I never even thought of hurting anyone like the way I hurt you. I just wanted you to know that im deeply sorry for my actions. I think about what happened every second, I pray that you heal correctly and that you recover and live a happy life. Please forgive me thats all I want. I take responsibility for all my actions, I’ll take all the consiquences,” he wrote. “I’m not just saying this because im incarcerated I honestly mean every word.” He signed it, “Love, Richard Thomas.”

A few days later, he wrote a second letter, this one addressed to “Mr. Fleischman.” It was nearly three pages long, written in neat cursive.

“I had a nightmare last night and I woke up sweating and apoligizing,” he wrote. “I really hope you get back to the way you were. I went to court yesterday and there still making me seem like a monster, but im not. I’m a good kid if you get to know me. I’m sure you would have been a nice person to,” he continued. “I was hoping that I can meet you face to face so I can apoligize to you.”

He went on to detail the charges against him, explaining that he was willing to accept the assault charges but that he rejected the hate-crime enhancements. “I don’t have a problem with homosexual’s,” he explained. “I have friends thats homosexuals and we never had problems so I don’t look at you wrong because of your sexualitie. Honestly I could care less if you like men you weren’t trying to talk to me in that way.”

As for himself, he said: “I am not a thug, gangster, hoodlum, nor monster. Im a young African American male who’s made a terrible mistake.” Perhaps, he suggested, he and Fleischman had things in common. “I’ve also been hurt alot for no reason, not like I hurt you but Ive been hurt physically and metally so I know how it feels, the pain and confusion of why me I’ve felt it before plenty of times.”


According to 2013 data from the National Registry of Exoneration, 38% of exonerations of kids and 11% of exonerations of adults involved false confessions. Whether or not confessions are true, they have considerable power over juries, more than character testimony, and even more than eyewitness testimony.

ProPublica’s Joe Sexton uses the upcoming trial for the 1979 murder of 6-year-old Etan Patz, and a videotaped confession from Pedro Hernandez to explore the issue. Here’s how it opens:

Over the next several months, defense lawyers for Pedro Hernandez will seek to undercut the central evidence against him: his videotaped confession to having killed 6-year-old Etan Patz.

They will depict the confession as inaccurate when set against the known facts of the infamous 1979 missing child case. They will portray Hernandez, a onetime bodega clerk in the Manhattan neighborhood where Patz lived, as mentally ill. They will paint the detectives who gained the confession as manipulative and coercive.

It’s a daunting assignment, but here’s what may well be scaring the lawyers the most: They could succeed in every aspect of their attack on the reliability of the confession and still not win an acquittal.

Such is the power of confessions, true or false, for American juries. A nascent body of scholarship, driven in part by an escalating number of wrongful convictions in cases with false confessions, has begun to document just how persuasive confessions can be.

Of course, the power of confessions owes in part to the fact that they very often are true. Certainly, that is the argument Manhattan prosecutors will make as they seek to hold Hernandez responsible for a case that has haunted the city, and parents nationwide, for decades. Prosecutors say Hernandez’s claims that he strangled the young boy after luring him from his school bus stop are credible, and that any mental health issues he suffers from are not serious. They also argue that the confession is supported by the accounts of others who maintain Hernandez told similar stories of killing a child over the years.

But false confessions – including those questioned at trial by effective defense lawyers – also have proven to carry extraordinary weight with juries. Several studies, using mock jurors and sophisticated analysis, have demonstrated that confessions outweigh the value of eyewitness and character testimony. And in at least one case, according to a 2010 study, prosecutors chose to believe a confession even when the accused seemed categorically cleared by DNA evidence.


In a new report, two California advocacy groups: the Children’s Advocacy Institute and First Star are calling for the feds to monitor states compliance with federal child welfare laws and to deny funding to states who do not adequately protect their most vulnerable kids.

The Chronicle of Social Change’s John Kelly has a good rundown of the report’s main points. Here are clips from the first two:

Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSR)

The CFSR has been conducted twice in each state by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and gauges the state’s performance on seven outcomes and seven systemic factors. The report takes the view that the CFSR process is a general assessment indicating adherence to federal law, done instead of a full compliance check on individual laws.

“Although the efficacy of the CFSR process is highly questionable in terms of ensuring state conformity with federal child welfare laws and standards, it at least provided some modicum of external oversight and monitoring of at least a few aspects of federal child welfare law,” the report says.

Not once in those two rounds has one state been found in “substantial conformity” with the review. States enter into a Program Improvement Plan (PIP) upon failure on the CFSR, and face withholding of federal IV-E funds if they fail to meet the goals in the plan.

Yet report authors could only identify two instances in which states were assessed penalties, according to the report….

Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System

The Department of Health and Human Services is not actively penalizing states that declare themselves out of compliance with the data collection standards put in place with the creation of AFCARS.

“By refusing to impose financial penalties on states that fail to comply with federal data reporting requirements, ACF has ignored one of the most incentivizing tools it has to ensure states’ submission of reliable, consistent, and complete data — information that could have meaningfully contributed to the improvement of the adoption and foster care processes,” the report says.

Posted in Fire, Foster Care, Innocence, juvenile justice, Kamala Harris, Prosecutors | No Comments »

Are Inmate Fire Camps in Danger Due to Prop 47?…and Thoughts on Obama’s Immigration Speech

November 21st, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


As it was when California’s Realignment strategy ushered in sweeping changes to the state’s criminal justice system in 2011, there is now is much speculation about what collateral effects will result from Proposition 47.

There are worries about spiking crime, of course. (More about that at a later date.) And some officials have expressed serious concern that the state’s well-regarded inmate fire program will be deeply wounded by the newly passed ballot measure.

Earlier this month, the LA Times went so far as to write a story claiming that the future of California’s inmate fire crews was “now in doubt” after the passage of Proposition 47.

It is good news, therefore, to learn that, according to sources inside both the California Department of Corrections and the LA County Sheriff’s Department, the fears for the inmate fire camps, at least, are reportedly groundless.

“We’re not worried about Prop. 47 harming the program,” said CDCR spokesman Bill Sessa, although he admitted that the initiative targeted the same general inmate group that the camps drew from, so there might be some changes. “We have approximately 4300 inmates in the program right now. And, the bottom line is, post Prop. 47, we’ll still be able to find 4300 inmates to fight fires.”

At present, those 4300 are deployed from 42 adult fire camps, and one juvenile fire camp. In case of a wildland fire, the inmate firefighters work side by side with crews from the U.S. Forest Service and CALFIRE crews, saving state and county taxpayers an estimated $80-100 million a year.

Sessa said that while most of the inmate fire crews come from state facilities, 200-250 come out of various counties. LA County provides the most, with San Bernardino a close second.

As for the qualifications inmate firefighters need, Sessa explained that, in general, candidates must be physically fit, and their most recent offense must be non-serious and non violent. “We take no sex offenders,” he said, “and obviously no arsonists.”

Lifers are also excluded because the temptation to try to escape is deemed too great. And anyone with chronic behavior issues is quickly axed from the list.

“The fire teams can’t have people who question authority or are still involved in gang rivalries,” said Sessa, “because everybody’s life depends on the others on the crew—literally. They have to be able to work as a team.”

Despite the stringent qualifications, Sessa said, there are still plenty of candidates.

A Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department official who works with LA County’s fire camp program agreed. “From what we gather,” he said, “we’re not going to take as big a hit as we originally thought because a lot of the Prop. 47 people are first time offenders, and our people usually have multiple offenses. They’re drawn from the group we call the non-non-nons.” (Non violent, non serious, non sexual offenders.) “But those are all the people we got sent by realignment, and there are a lot of them.”

At present, LA County has 122 inmates in their program, which has been operational for three years. “I’ve seen it change plenty of lives,” said the official (who asked not to be quoted by name). “I even know of one guy who was part of the CDCR’s program who is now a Battalion Chief for the Forest Service. We always tell his story during our training program because it inspires everybody.”

While there are other instances of former inmates going on to careers in firefighting, according to Sessa, most of the men and women in the program do not plan to become wildland firefighters. “It’s more that they learn discipline, about working with others, and they learn to see something through to the end.” Plus the inmate crew members gain a sense of self worth by providing tangible help to people and communities, he said. “And all that helps them when they get out.”

(Indeed, the fire camps have a recidivism rate that is 18 percent lower than the system as a whole.)

As the fire camp program is prized by inmates, the inmate crews provide help to California counties that can be crucial.

“Most of us are flatlanders,” LA Fire Inspector Steve Zermeno told WitnessLA in 2009 after the huge and deadly Station fire, the largest in recorded LA County history. “We’re the ones who are going to be used for structure protection. These guys, the inmates, are the people who are trained in wildland firefighting, which is a whole different thing. So when we get a big fire like the Station fire, we really count on them.”

As it is with all those who battle wildland fires, the CDCR’s inmate firefighters do a truly dangerous job. This fact became tragically clear during the worst of the Station Fire when two veteran firefighters who had, for years, trained inmate crews, were killed trying to save 55 of their CDCR crew members plus three CDCR staffers, who nearly didn’t survive the inferno that descended on Camp 16, which was then located on Mt. Gleason. (WLA reported on the heartbreaking deaths of Captain Ted Hall and Specialist Arnie Quinones here and here.)

Despite such dangers, the number of inmates who want to enter the fire camp program still greatly exceeds the number that can be accepted, said Sessa.

A California prison inmate named Danny Cabral, who is a lifer thus ineligible for fire camp, told me why. “A lot of guys I know have been to those fire camps, and risked their own lives to fight fires,” he said. “And they were glad to do it. Really glad. It makes them feel like they’re doing something that matters.”

For this and other reasons it is heartening to hear that the state’s inmate firefighter program itself—for the moment at least—appears to be in no real danger.



Obviously the biggest news of the last 24 hours—criminal justice-related or otherwise—is Obama’s plan to offer deportation relief for as many as 5 million immigrants—the majority of them parents. Yet, since nearly every other news outlet is covering the matter rather extensively, we’ll confine ourselves to pointing out a few commentaries that you might otherwise miss.


New Yorker columnist Jon Cassidy reviews the style of the president’s speech as well as the content.

Here’s a clip:

For a two-term President whom his critics used to call “the speechifier,” Barack Obama has given surprisingly few memorable speeches, and none for quite a while. Sometimes his speechwriters over-egg it, and his language seems a bit stilted. On other occasions, he goes on for too long and his delivery is flat. Thursday night’s much-anticipated address on immigration, which he delivered from the East Room of the White House, was an extended statement rather than a full-blown speech, and it was much better for it. It was direct and to the point; it had some uplifting moments, particularly at the end; and it was relatively short—about fifteen minutes.

With a crowd of immigration-reform supporters gathered across the street, in Washington’s Lafayette Square, and with Univision interrupting its coverage of the Latin Grammys to show the speech live, there had been suggestions on conservative Web sites that Obama would be preaching to the converted rather than to the country at large. As soon as he started talking, though, it was clear that he was making his pitch to the mass of voters who, opinion polls suggest, are in favor of some sort of path to citizenship for the undocumented but also have concerns about the President going it alone.

After a hat tip to immigration’s historical role in keeping America “youthful, dynamic, and entrepreneurial,” and a quick reminder that he has beefed up border security, deported a lot of uninvited foreigners, and overseen a decline in illegal border crossings of more than fifty per cent, Obama put the blame for what he was about to do squarely on his adversaries: the Republican leaders in the House of Representatives who had refused to allow a vote on a bipartisan immigration-reform bill. “I continue to believe that the best way to solve this problem is by working together to pass that kind of common-sense law,” Obama said. “But, until that happens, there are actions I have the legal authority to take as President—the same kinds of actions taken by Democratic and Republican Presidents before me—that will help make our immigration system more fair and more just.”

If there had been any hecklers, or Fox News reporters, on hand, one of them might well have shouted that no previous President has taken executive action on the scale that Obama is proposing, which will remove the threat of deportation for perhaps as many as five million illegal immigrants. But the President had the stage to himself, and he used it to appeal to the better nature of his countrymen and countrywomen. “Most of these immigrants have been here a long time,” he said. “They work hard, often in tough, low-paying jobs. They support their families. They worship at our churches. Many of their kids are American-born or spent most of their lives here, and their hopes, dreams, and patriotism are just like ours. As my predecessor, President Bush, once put it: ‘They are a part of American life.’ ”

Mentioning George W. was another not so subtle reminder of how the G.O.P. has drifted to the dark side on this issue….


The Wall Street Journal lists “5 Things to Note on Obama’s Immigration Overhaul. (So far this is not hidden behind the paywall. Let’s hope it stays that way.)

They are:

1. Broadcast blackout.
2. Protecting Parents
3. More Dreamers
4. Obama’s Backtrack
5. Timing.

Now that we’ve given you the teaser, for details go to the WSJ and read the rest.


The LA Times Editorial Board liked most of what Obama had to say, but felt the problem of immigration reform must ultimately be solved by Congress. Here’s how their editorial opens:

After years of debate and division, President Obama announced Thursday that he would use his executive powers to revamp the nation’s immigration system. But wait, you say, isn’t that Congress’ responsibility? Well, yes, it is, and if Congress had done its job, the nation wouldn’t be at this juncture. But here we are.

On the substance, the president is absolutely right. The immigration system is broken and unfair; it has resulted in a permanent class of illegal workers, it separates families and it denies a place in society to immigrants who work hard, pay taxes and have deep ties to the country. There are 11 million immigrants living in the United States without authorization — more than 3 million in California alone — and it makes practical and moral sense to legalize their status and offer them a path to citizenship.

But even though Congress has been discussing these issues for more than a decade, it has repeatedly failed, for reasons both political and substantive, to move a bill through both houses. A frustrated Obama finally announced — after initially saying he lacked the legal authority — that he would act on his own. His decision will, we hope, offer some breathing room to millions of immigrant families who have been living under the threat of deportation. But it also raises serious questions about the limits of executive authority.


Mother Jones’s Erika Eichelberger lists those who benefit from the president’s executive action and those who lose out. Below you’ll find the two bare bones lists, but—as with the WSJ takeaways—you’ll have to go to Mother Jones to read the details and the analysis.


Undocumented parents of children who are US citizens or permanent residents



Noncriminal undocumented immigrants

Highly skilled workers

Immigrants with pending cases

Immigrant victims of crime

The Border Patrol


Undocumented immigrants who have been here since 2011

Undocumented agricultural workers

Ag workers with papers

Other types of legal immigrants

Foreigners attending American universities

Immigrant detainees

Read the meat of the story here.

NOTE: The inmate firefight photo at the top of the page is courtesy of the CDCR. The second photo taken in Malibu is by WitnessLA.

Posted in CDCR, Fire, LASD | 1 Comment »

DEVASTATING: 19 Firefighters Killed Sunday Night in AZ Wildfire…and Other News

July 1st, 2013 by Celeste Fremon

As many of you may have heard by now, 19 firefighters were killed Sunday
night battling an out-of-control wildfire, located about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix.

The 19 were members of a team of highly-trained wildland firefighters known as the Prescott Granite Mountain Hot Shots (pictured above), one of the elite Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHC) that are deployed as needed to major wildland fires throughout the nation.

The deaths of the Prescott hot shots is the second worst such incident in U.S. history, and the worst firefighting loss of life since 1933.

When firefighters or police officers are killed, it tears a particular kind of hole in the community—both locally and in the larger community. Thus, while WLA doesn’t genrally report on wildfires, in this case….attention must be paid.

Here is what LAPD Chief Charlie Beck tweeted at around 10 pm Sunday night:

Feeling incredible shock and grief over the deaths of the 19 firefighters killed in Yarnell,Az wildfires. Please pray 4 their families.CB




The LAPD’s Inspector General, Alex Bustamante, issued a sharply-worded report that critiqued the department’s failure to institute reforms to reduce the number of officers suing department—and collecting big $$ payouts—as a result of various claims of ill-treatment at the hands of the LAPD.

Here’s a small snip from the LA Times’ Joel Rubin’s story on the matter:

Alex Bustamante, the inspector general, calculated that the city has paid $31 million over the last five years to resolve employment-related cases in which members of the LAPD contended they were victims of discrimination, harassment, retaliation or other misconduct. That was almost one-third of the $110 million paid in all LAPD lawsuits, including those involving allegations of excessive force and traffic accidents, the report found.

In a set of recommendations, Bustamante called on the department to implement a mediation program devised by the LAPD, city attorneys and officials from the union representing rank-and-file police officers.

The Los Angeles Police Comission will discuss Bustamante’s report on Tuesday.

And while we’re on the topic, it would be good to know what percentage of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department payouts are to settle with department members.

It should also be noted that, in his report, Bustamante said that, in the last 5 years, the LAPD has paid out $110 million in lawsuits, 31 million of which is cops suing the department.

The Sheriff’s department has, by contrast, paid out over $100 million-in three years.

So how much of that 100 million plus is paid to settle with LASD department members who are suing their department?

Has anyone called for reforms to help cut those numbers down?


On Sunday, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy turned down requests from Prop. 8 supporters to put a stop to gay marriages in California until they could appeal to SCOTUS to rethink it’s ruling.

Kennedy said, Uh, no.

NPR’s Mark Memmott has the story. Here’s a clip:

On Thursday, the court (with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the majority opinion), ruled 5-4 that the proponents who came forward to defend Prop 8 after it was struck down by a lower court did not have the proper standing to bring the case to the High Court. So, in effect, the lower court ruling was allowed to stand.

The ruling has brought hundreds of same-sex couples to courthouses and city halls across California. As we wrote Saturday, it’s “wedding weekend in San Francisco” and other places.

This weekend, Kennedy (to whom appeals of decisions from California are directed) was asked to put a stop to the weddings. Prop 8′s supporters, as our colleagues at KQED reported, argued that because they have 25 days in which to ask the Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling, the marriages should be on hold for at least that long.

Kennedy disagreed. So, the marriages can continue.


Travis County, Texas, (which includes Austin within its borders) has decided that it can do a better job in helping its law breaking kids turn their lives around, by making use of intensive therapy and other rehabilitative programs.

Brandi Grisson writing for the Texas Tribune has the story. Here’s a clip:

“…We will no longer commit kids to the state,” said Jeanne Meurer, a Travis County senior district judge. “We will take care of all of our kids.”

This year, legislators approved a law to allow the county to commit juvenile offenders to local detention facilities instead of sending them to large institutions operated by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. If the Travis County model is successful, it could set the stage for the next steps in reforming the juvenile justice system — sharply reducing the size of the agency and the number of detention centers.

“Travis County’s experience doing this will tell us what’s possible,” said Michele Deitch, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert on jail conditions.

Since Texas deals with many of the same complex youth populations in its facilities as does California, what Travis does should be worth watching.

Posted in Charlie Beck, Civil Liberties, Civil Rights, Fire, juvenile justice, LAPD, LAPPL, LASD, LGBT, Life in general, Supreme Court | 8 Comments »

Wednesday Short Takes

February 24th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon



In the wake of the LA Times report on staff abuse of young inmates within LA County’ juvenile probation facilities,
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas called for expansion of the Probation Department’s internal affairs staff.

Well that’s a start. Let’s hope there’s some follow-through.

And don’t forget, the LA Times report is the beginning, not the end of the problems.


The Sacramento Bee’s guest column by Orson Aguilar articulates why the state should reject its penny wise and pound foolish plans to slash its rehabilitative prison programs.

The $250 million that California is about to save by slashing vital rehabilitation programs for prisoners will cost us many times that much money.

The money we think we’re saving will cost us many times over in more crime, more drug abuse and ruined lives.

Rehabilitation and alternative programs can save lives. I know. One of them saved mine.

I grew up in Boyle Heights, a rough section of East Los Angeles, in the 1980s. Poverty, gangs, drugs and violence plagued our community. But I was lucky enough to stay out of most of it — until one night, at age 19, I did something stupid.

A friend and I were attacked by a group of teens. In the struggle, I fired a shot from a handgun, scattering the crowd but striking one of the assailants in the forearm. Luckily, he was not seriously hurt. My friend and I also escaped with only minor injuries.

But I was charged with a felony. My friends urged me to fight the charges on grounds of self-defense. Instead, I took responsibility for my action. I pleaded guilty to felony assault with a deadly weapon.

Read the rest here.


The ACLU’s longtime and extremely respected director, Ramona Ripston, has announced that she will retire a year from now. Ripston was the first woman to hold a leadership position in the organization. Some of her accomplishments include:

…Ending segregationist policies at the Los Angeles Unified School District, helping to spur meaningful reform in the, for years, notoriously hard-headed LAPD, fighting successfully for voting rights for Latinos, and providing leadership in battles for equal rights for the disabled, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and the homeless.

“Ramona Ripston has spent her entire career giving a voice to the voiceless,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said. “With the ACLU of Southern California as her megaphone, she worked tirelessly to protect the constitutional rights of the poor, disabled, homeless, and gays and lesbians, among many others….”

Yep, that’s about right.

All of us who live in Southern California, owe her a huge debt of gratitude—even those who have opposed her. We have all of us benefited beyond calculation from her passion and her commitment to our collective humanness.


Anyone interested in justice issues likely knows the Sentencing Project.

They have just launched a new website that is replete with great new interactive features. Reporters and others with criminal justice-related research needs, take note.

Posted in ACLU, Fire, juvenile justice, prison, prison policy, Probation | 5 Comments »

Should a 16-year-old Arsonist Be Tried As an Adult?

September 25th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


While there have been no suspects arrested yet
in the deadly Station fire, Wednesday police had a press conference to announce they had a suspect in the recent (and still burning) fire near Yucaipa. Here’s what the LA Times said about the arrest:

A 16-year-old boy seen riding a bike away from a brush fire
near Yucaipa on Wednesday is suspected of starting a dozen fires that ravaged the area over the last three years, including two large blazes earlier this month.

San Bernardino County prosecutors are trying to figure out if they should try the 16-year old as an adult. (Answer: No. You shouldn’t.)

But the rather mind boggling thing is the fact that the cops believe their teenage suspect may have set between 12 and 14 other fires in the past three years.

Really? 12 to 14 fires?
Where were the adults when this adolescent firebug was striking matches? This boy has been setting blazes since he was 13-years-old and no one has thought to intervene until now? And, now, of course, we want to send him to adult prison?

If I were an editor with reporters to assign, I would put someone on the boy the minute that his name is released. Who is this kid and why has he (allegedly) been setting fires? And who else should have known about his arsonist’s proclivities? The answer is bound to be telling.

[NOTE: Light posting this morning. Back with more soon.]

Posted in crime and punishment, Fire | 24 Comments »

Ted Hall, Arnie Quinones & Camp 16: Part 2 – the Inferno

September 11th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


The memorial for LA County firefighters Captain Ted Hall and Specialist Arnie Quinones will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday at Dodger Stadium.

So let us revisit the events on Mt. Gleason on August 30 in order to honor the work and the lives of two men who became the teachers, heroes and friends, over the years, to several hundred wildland firefighters—who also happened to be prison inmates.

Many of those former inmates will be prominent among the mourners at Elysian Park on Saturday morning.


Mt. Gleason, or Camp 16 —it is known by both appellations-
— was opened in 1979 as the first of four Los Angeles County Fire Department Wild Land fire camps where prison inmates are trained in wild land fire fighting techniques—and then deployed to the front lines when a fire breaks out.

“Most of us are flatlanders,” said LA County fire inspector Steve Zermeno. “We’re the ones who are going to be used for structure protection. These guys,” he said, “the inmates, are the people who are trained in wildland firefighting, which is a whole different thing.

“So when we get a big fire like the Station fire, we really count on them.”

At the time that the Station Fire broke out—the largest fire ever to hit LA—Ted Hall and Arnie Quinones were stationed at Mt. Gleason to train, mentor and help deploy Camp 16′s teams of inmate firefighters.

It seems that, for both men, their commitment to the fire camp work was some kind of genuine calling. Ted Hall had been stationed at Gleason for the past few years and loved being up there.

Arnie Quinones, who was younger than Ted Hall, had been at the Gleason camp longer, since 2005. But when the department higher ups learned that his adored wife Lori was pregnant, they offered Q.—as he was called—a chance to transfer to a post that would be closer to his wife as her delivery date approached.

Arnie declined the transfer. He was devoted to his wife, but in terms of work, he wanted to remain with the wildfire inmates at Camp 16.

It was, as we now know, a fateful choice—in the worst and the best sense or the term.

It has already been reported, here and elsewhere, that Quinones and Hall helped save the lives of the 55 inmates and three CDCR staff who were still at Mt. Gleason when a part of the Station fire made a run at the camp. (The camp’s other 50 or so inmates were already deployed on the fire lines.)

But the details of what happened that day are far scarier:

The fire didn’t just overrun the camp. It turned into a blast-furnace and melted it. It caused its windows to to turn liquid and run into sculptural puddles. When people talk about infernos, the fire that ate Camp Gleason is what they have in mind.

NOTE: The investigation is ongoing and new facts and shadings to events will assuredly emerge, but, based on interviews with CDCR officials and LA County Fire spokespeople, here is the best of what we know so far about what happened on Mt. Gleason :

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in CDCR, Fire, LACFD, Natural Disasters | 21 Comments »

Ted Hall, Arnie Quinones & Camp 16: Part 1 – Inmate Grief

September 11th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


When I posted a less detailed version of the above story ten days ago,
after the news of Hall and Quinones deaths became public, former Mt. Gleason inmates and their family members wrote in to say how much Hall and Quinones mattered to them.

You’ll find some of those comments excerpted below:


Q, was an amazing foreman, well at least that is what my husband Steve Guzman says. My husband had the honor and priveldge of working under Q as one of the inmate firefighters for two years and developed a friendship with him. Q even made an effort to come out to visit and meet with the families which made it much more real. Steve has countless stories of the amazing man Q was, not once did he treat the men any less because of who they were. He developed genuine bonds with the inmates and for that he will always be hoonored. I can tell you first hand what the friendship meant to my husband, I saw it first hand. Q made an impact on Steve’s life as he counseled and befriended him.

He is our fallen hero. May God bless his family and our prayers go out to them.


Thanks for mentioning the inmate crews; seems they never get recognition. As an ex-inmate fire fighter I was proud to have served with such people as our fallen heroes.


This is very close to me because my husband was one of the inmates left behind. I had called the camp minutes before the camp caught on fire and at that time they were getting ready to evacuate. I can just image the fear they felt. I never met captain Hall but heard really good things about him. I know my husband Christopher Buttner is really upset about the loss of Q as he called him. I had the privilege to meet him 2 months ago during a visit with my husband and he had nothing but respect for my husband and nothing but nice things to say about him. Q made is rounds that day to all the families there that were visiting. How he treated those men ment a lot to my husband. My husband said he always treated them like a fellow fire fighter not an inmate. This lifted him and showed him he was not just an inmate or a number. I thank his wife for being so supportive by standing by him as he trained and work a long side men that had done wrong and giving them a chance to rehabilitate themselves. My prayers go out to his whole family. He will never be forgotten.


My husband is also an inmate firefighter. He tells me that he loves giving back to society. The captains are very nice to them and get to know them as a person. They give these guys respect and a second chance.


My son is a camp foreman at camp 16 and was on duty that day. He credits the efforts and actions of Ted and Arnie with saving their lives. The foremen and crews have suffered a great loss and experienced almost loosing their own lives as well.

(Note: The camp foreman is an LA County firefighter, not an inmate.)


I am a wife of one of the inmates that was stuck in MT Gleason #16 and I’m still very devastated. The thought of watching it on T.V and not knowing what is going to happen to all of them and not able to get any information was the worst anyone can go through but thanks to all the prayers from all the families, they lived through it. I had a chance to talk to my husband and I’m thankful he and all the inmates and staff survived this hell. I’m very saddened with the loss of these two wonderful men Ted Hall and Arnie Quinones. I know they were good people and both men treated the inmates as people not criminals.


My son is alive because of the actions of those two men.But, there has to be an inquiry of why the system was not concerned about getting those men out of that terrible place. If that had been done, two people would still be alive and their families happy.
Now, they are saying that the LACO firefighters need therapy because of the tragedy. What about the inmates that were terrified and experienced fear and death? Why aren’t thay being provided therapy? Do they not have any feelings.


As a former inmate at a camp, I can attest to the dedication these men have to their crews. There are 33 camps in Calif,two women and the rest men. I am thankful for the camps and the chance it gave us to give back to society. These men are awesome examples of what a hero is and about how one should treat his fellow man.

NOTE: Memorial T-Shirts and Memorial Fund information may be found here,

Photo by Brian Watt/KPCC

Posted in CDCR, Fire, LACFD, Natural Disasters | 2 Comments »

Firefighters Arnie Quinones & Ted Hall: A Hero Story

August 31st, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


Firefighters are, by definition, heroic.
But in some cases, the heroism is more direct.

We know that Sunday night Los Angeles County Firefighters Arnie Quinones and Ted Hall, both experienced firefighters—Ted a 26-year veteran of LACFD, Arnie a specialist—were killed in the course of working on the Station fire. We think it happened when a ferocious and fast-moving tongue of the blaze overtook their vehicle causing them to go off the road. Or maybe it was the smoke that blinded them for a fatal moment. Investigators are not yet sure. What is completely clear is that they plunged down an 800 foot embankment, and the engine truck flipped, landing upside down.

“Look,” LA County Fire Inspector Frederic Stowers told me. ” One thing I can tell you is that it’s a dangerous road even when it’s daylight and there’s no fire.”

What we also do know is that just before Hall and Quinones
got on that fire-haunted road, they helped to save the lives of 58 other men, and that they were on that difficult road trying to find a route to safety for those same 58 men when the fire in some way caught up with them.

In short: this is a hero story.

NOTE: BEFORE READING ON...please know that this post about of the events on Mt. Gleason was an early account that reflects as much as CDCR officials knew at the time. Since this account was written new facts have emerged, which I posted about here. But the investigation is ongoing and a truly accurate account may not emerge for some time. However one thing that those of us covering this incident have heard repeatedly: and that is the message that many of those trapped on Mt. Gleason might not be alive had it not been for Ted Hall and Arnie Quinones.

Both Ted Hall and Arnie Quinones were known to be ardent family guys. Quinones’s wife was pregnant and due to give birth to the couple’s first child within a few weeks. The soon-to-be-father was thrilled. Hall was married with two sons—ages 20 and 21—whom he doted on and adored.

But in addition to their families, the men also loved the work. At the time of their deaths, both Hall and Quinones were engaged in an interesting and unusual job for LACFD: They were assigned to Mt. Gleason Fire Camp, a wildland fire training and deployment facility that is located deep in the Angeles National Forest at an abandoned missile base that, during the cold war, was considered one of the Los Angeles basin’s bulwarks against any nuclear threat.

Mt Gleason Fire Camp is run by the California Department of Corrections and by the LA County Fire Department. It is one of five CDCR wildland fire camps in which adult prison inmates are trained and work as firefighters. The camp guys function in crews skilled in such tasks as aiding in the setting of backfires and clearing fire breaks in the path of advancing flames.

Hall and Quinones were one of a handful of LA County firefighters stationed at Gleason to provide supervision and training for the 105 inmates who were assigned to the camp.

On Sunday, August 30, about half of the Mt. Gleason inmates were already deployed out in the field fighting the various Southern California fires. (According to the CDCR, there are 2,245 firefighting inmates working on fires up and down the state.)

But 55 of the inmates plus three CDCR staff were still back at the camp.They became trapped when suddenly the Station fire came straight at the Mt. Gleason facility itself.

If a fire has the right combination of fuel and wind, it can move faster than a man can run. On Sunday the winds were not the problem. But the fuel was. So as the Station fire barreled toward Mt. Gleason, there was no way to escape it. Hall and Quinones, and other LA County firefighters stationed with them, calmly directed the 55 inmate firefighters and the three CDCR staffers into the cinder-block dining hall, which they deemed to be the only building likely to survive the coming conflagration.

It was a good choice. The fire passed over the cinder block structure, but only barely. As soon as they could, Hall and Quinones moved the group out of the dining hall into a large parking area, which was about the only part of the camp that was now not actively burning.

Yet, fires are volatile and so it was agreed it was necessary to get everyone out of Mt. Gleason camp altogether as soon as was humanly possible. With this goal in mind, Hall and Quinones took off in one of the engine trucks, intending to check out the narrow, winding Three Mile Road to see if it was a viable route to safety.

We know now, of course, that they did not find a safe road out.

Instead the fire found them.

Eventually, the rest of the 57 men were able to somehow make their way down the mountain and out of harm’s way. In the meantime, Camp Gleason burned completely to the ground, with it, the inmates’ very few possessions—pictures, letters and the like. But at least they were still alive.

Once safe themselves, the inmate firefighters learned to their horror that Hall and Quinones —their respected coaches, teachers and the men who had kept them from harm—did not survive.

“These guys were devastated, just devastated,” said CDCR spokesperson, Terry Thornton. “When the firefighters and the inmates work together up in those camps, they all really get to know each other—you know, just as people. These are really cooperative relationships. So they were devastated. A lot of them were out fighting fires, and they didn’t hear until later…”

All at once, Thornton’s voice became thick.

“I don’t want to start crying here,” she said.

LA County Fire Inspector Frederic Stowers echoed her grief and added his own.

“I’d worked with both those guys,”
he said. “They were very well known here. Very well known, very well liked, and well respected.” He too found the need to gather himself.

“They were friends,” he said finally. Then after another pause. “I think the hardest thing is wondering what they went through. ……This is very difficult for us.”


The photo above was taken in 2007 of another CDCR crew, when I was snapping pictures at the fire base in Malibu.

POST SCRIPT: An hour after I posted this account, I got one of my regular calls from an inmate
doing time at one of the California state prisons. It was a man named Danny Cabral, whom I’ve known for many years.

When guys call, sometimes they have an agenda: they want me to give some message or other to their girlfriend, or their kid or their mother. Most often they simply want to talk, so I make a point of telling them chatty stories about something in my day, just to provide whatever moment of normalcy I can offer.

Danny nearly always fell into the latter category,
so I related the story about Mt. Gleason, the inmates and the tragedy of the heroic fighter fighters.

“I’m glad you told me that,” he said, “even though it’s sad. And I’m glad you’re writing about that stuff. See, a lot of guys I know have been to those fire camps, and risked their own lives to fight fires. And they were glad to do it. Really glad. It makes them feel like they’re doing something that….matters.”

Just then, the recorded 60-second warning message interrupted his words. When it stopped, Danny hastened to finish the point, his voice now soft.

“People need to know that, just because we’re locked up
, it doesn’t mean we aren’t people,” Danny said. “And a lot of us here want to do something good.

He hesitated. “Do you know what I’m saying?” he asked.

I did, I said.

And then the allotted time was up. . The line went blank. We were disconnected.

Posted in Fire, LACFD, Natural Disasters | 53 Comments »

Fire Weather: Two LA County Firefighters Killed – UPDATED

August 31st, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


UPDATE: 5:15 P.M. The word is now, according to LASD’s Steve Whitmore,
that those five people in Gold Canyon who needed rescue, don’t need to be rescued after all. According to Whitmore one of the group’s members has been calling local radio stations and news outlets saying that they’re fine. That they never needed rescuing.


Whitmore says that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department had been notified of the trapped five by one of the rescuees directly by phone. Whatever the case, it hardly needs to be said that the sheriff’s are feeling a little irritable that they nearly put men and women in harms way to rescue people who…..

Oh, never mind. I guess all is well, that ends well.

May everyone stay safe.

Time lapse photography of the Station Fire by Brandon Riza, posted this morning, taken Saturday. As horrible as this fire is, the photos are almost balletic.

2 p.m. – So far the flames have been far too intense to rescue
the five people trapped in Gold Canyon, north of Lakeview Terrace. Sheriff’s spokesperson, Steve Whitmore is sounding more and more vexed by this situation with each successive news release on the rescue attempts.

His vexation is with good cause. Evacuation order for the area were issued two days ago.

Meanwhile, TV stations and other news outlets, are making plans for back-ups and work-arounds
in case Mt. Wilson goes down.

For instance, KNBC, Channel 4, has arranged to broadcast via its sister station, Telemundo, whose transmitters are not on Mt. Wilson, but on Mt. Harvard, which is also threatened, but not with the same immediacy.

If Mr. Harvard goes down, I have been told that KNBC’s Digital Channel 4.2 is being eyed as a back-up.

If some of the local NPR stations go down, they can, of course be accessed via your handy iPhone if you load the NPR Ap.

12:15 p.m.: A group of people are trapped by the Station fire
in an area north of Lakeview Terrace and near to Little Tujunga Road. The area was thought to have been previously evacuated. Now sheriff’s deputies are attempting a rescue—at great danger to themselves, as the area is overgrown with chaparral.

NOTE: This is, by the way, why when the sheriffs or cops tell you that evacuation is mandatory, you need to pack up the kids, the photos, the hard drives and the animals….and freaking leave.

NOTE 2: Last night, National Forest officials and LACFD were estimating that the Station fire would be contained by Sept. 8. Now they’re saying Sept. 15. (!!!)

KTLA’s Eric Spillman took a drive up to Wilson and came back with photos and reports.

10:20 a.m.

Firefighters have set back fires and have, for the moment, slowed the fires aimed at the top of Mt. Wilson. But not enough. Leaving teams on the mountain has been deemed too risky, and they have been pulled away from the observatory while the access road is still open.

We understand. We want no more dead firefighters.

Sky and Telescope magazine has this report on the fire threat to Mt. Wilson. Although, matters are changing so quickly, that much of its info is out of date by morning. It nonetheless has lots of details about the observatory and the communications equipment at risk. Plus, the time lapse photos are cool.

UPDATE: 9 a.m. – the Station Fire is approximately 1/4 mile from the Mt. Wilson observatory.

The fire has doubled in size-–from 43,000 acres at midnight last night, to 85,000 this morning.

When there is a big fire in Los Angeles County,
it hangs over the rest of LA life as a specter formed of flame and ashes.

The shadow thrown by the so-called Station fire, which has now burned nearly 45,000 acres, grew measurably darker when the city learned the terrible nws that, on Sunday,
two LA County fire fighters had been killed fighting the fire. According to the visibly choked up County Deputy Fire Chief Mike Bryant, the fire fighters died when the fire overran them and their vehicle rolled on the side of Mt. near to Acton. Although 2575 people from various states are now fighting the Station fire, the two killed were local— from the LA County FD.

The two killed were Fire Captain Tedmund “Ted” Hall and Firefighter Specialist Arnaldo “Arnie” Quinones. Captain Hall was 47 and had been with the LACFD for 26 years.

Arnie Quinones was 35 and had been with the department 8 years.

Then at 10:30 Sunday night, it was announced that the fire was less than a mile from the observatory at the top of Mt. Wilson, which is the home to many of LA’s TV and FM transmitters, as well as some of those of law enforcement. It is expected to reach the peak during the night, or early Monday morning, reported the Pasadena Star-News.

“It’s not a matter of if (flames reach the top),” said Forest Service Capt. Mike Dietrich, “it’s a matter of when.”

Dietrich said the communications equipment there are “truly in jeopardy.”

(The LA Times has a report listing all that would be affected if the observatory got hit hard.)

The Wilson website reported the following at 8 p.m. Sunday night:

A critical aspect to the survivability of the Observatory should the fire sweep across it is whether or not fire fighters will be on site during such an event. The U.S. Forest Service continually assesses the danger to fire fighters in any scenario and will withdraw fire crews in situations that are particularly precarious. Such an evaluation took place on Mount Wilson in the last half hour with the decision for the fire crews to remain in place tonight. That’s very good news.

Indeed, there are 25 firefighters at the top of Mt. Wilson who will stay “no matter what,” according to a US Forest Service spokesman.

ON A PRACTICAL NOTE: Those Needing information about the most recent evacuation orders, should dial 211.

PRACTICAL NOTE 2: The Pasadena Human Society is overrun with animals rescued from the fire and needs people who can bring in carrying crates and/or are will to be foster families for some of the overflow rescued critters.


Back later in the morning with more news.

Posted in Fire, Natural Disasters | 5 Comments »

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