Facing the Inferno LA County Board of Supervisors

Facing the Inferno: Campus Kilpatrick & the Woolsey Fire, Part 1

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

On Thursday afternoon on November 8, 2018, what came to be known as the Woolsey Fire ignited at approximately 2:24 p.m. near to the Santa Susana Field Laboratory located south of Simi Valley, in Ventura County, a property that was once the Rocketdyne/Atomics International rocket engine test and nuclear facility, but is now largely owned by Boeing.

By the time the Woolsey Fire was wrestled into near submission thirteen days later, it would kill three people, injure three firefighters, cause nearly 300 thousand people to evacuate, and incinerate 96,949 acres and 1,643 structures. By its end, the Woolsey fire burned more area of the Santa Monica Mountains than any other blaze in modern history. It is also the most destructive fire Los Angeles County has witnessed in the last 100 years.

Campus Kilpatrick, Friday morning, November 9, 2018

In the first couple of hours of Woolsey’s existence, however, another wildfire called the Hill Fire, took center stage. The Hill Fire, which started around fourteen miles away from the Woolsey Fire’s ignition point, and twenty minutes earlier, was initially assessed by county firefighters to be the more dangerous of the two. But as the afternoon wore on, the Hill blaze entered an area that had burned previously during the 2013 fire season, meaning the fire was suddenly deprived of much of its best fuel and began to slow.

At the same time, Santa Ana winds began whipping the Woolsey Fire into the monster it would eventually become.

That same Thursday afternoon, Campus Kilpatrick, one of Los Angeles County Probation’s youth detention camps, had 41 teenage boys in residence, plus the requisite number of probation officers, supervisors and other staff needed to keep the camp running, and the kids safe and productively occupied.

Kilpatrick is unique among the county’s youth facilities. When its $53 million campus opened in July 2017, it was designed as an innovative pilot for a therapeutic, research-guided, “trauma-informed” environment that would set a new standard for how the county treats the lawbreaking kids in its care. Yet, its location, nestled high in the Santa Monica Mountains above Point Dume and northwest of Malibu, while beautiful, is also a high fire area, surrounded by miles of dry chaparral, most of which hadn’t burned in at least 40 years, maybe longer.

Thus, for those who know fires, the question wasn’t if a large and dangerous blaze would one day threaten Kilpatrick, it was when.

By Friday morning, November 9, that question would be answered as Kilpatrick found itself directly in the path of the Woolsey Fire.

On Thursday afternoon, however, it was not yet clear to those on campus whether or not the place was really in any kind of real danger.

Kilpatrick staff members were certainly aware of the fire, and many had been tracking its progress on the TV in the break room when they had a few minutes.

Yet during the early hours of the fire’s life,  Kilpatrick staff members had another issue that was grabbing for their attention. Bedbugs.

The pests turned up in the kids’ quarters the week before and were supposedly eradicated.  But now they’d appeared in the staff’s quarters. Hoping to permanently obliterate the outbreak, staff members quickly trashed and replaced all potentially affected bedding, then confiscated the boys’ clothing, which was then subjected to aggressive washing at another location.

By early evening, however, the bed bug menace seemed generally to be handled and, although the fire was still at a distance, staff members began to wonder aloud to each other why there seemed to be no serious talk of evacuation from higher-ups in the department, at least none that had reached those on the campus.

Surrounding areas prepare to evacuate


Authority issues and dead vehicles

Tanesha Lockhart, a 25-year probation veteran, was one of the two supervisors on duty that Thursday night.

Lockhart, who had begun her career as a student volunteer, now supervised the day staff members who worked directly with the camp’s youth and she and another supervisor, Andrea Greene, were the highest-ranking Deputy Probation Officers—or DPOs—at the camp.

(A third supervisor, Silvia Khan, was off-site at the time getting the kids’ possibly infected clothes laundered.)

In any case, the problem on Thursday evening was that none of the three women had the authority to trigger an evacuation. They needed the go-ahead from one of the camp’s two directors.

One of the directors, a man named George Williams, had been on site earlier in the day, playing basketball with some of the kids, and dealing with bed-bug strategies. but he went home in the evening without any but the most off-hand instructions having to do with the fire. Furthermore, for Williams, or the other director, Katheryn Beigh, to give the go-ahead to evacuate, a former evacuation order was needed, which reportedly required the okay from someone still higher on the departmental food chain than they were.

Thus, on Thursday evening, there was no word from Director Williams, who was by then at home, so Lockhart and other staff members figured the message was wait and see.

Meanwhile, the day staff would soon be getting ready to leave for the night.

Like most of the DPOs, the Kilpatrick staff members worked a 3-day, 56-hour week. During those 56-hours, the day staffers were generally on duty from 6 a.m. when the camp’s teenage residents woke up, until 10 p.m. when the boys bedded down, and the night staff showed up, meaning the day staff could get some sleep. On a normal day, once the day staff was relieved, a small number went home, if they happened to live within reasonable driving distance. But most slept in on-campus dorms until they were on active duty again first thing in the morning.

Campus Kilpatrick, Friday morning, November 9, 2018

On this particular Thursday, November 8, however, due to the freaking bed bug issue, any day staff who didn’t live nearby had been instructed to stay overnight at one of the county’s other juvenile camps, Camp David Gonzalez, which is located in Malibu Canyon, off of Las Virgenes Rd, making it about 11.2 miles and 20 minutes of driving time away from Kilpatrick.

Camp Gonzalez was, at the time, shuttered. The plan is to repurpose the youth camp as a voluntary residential re-entry and vocational training center for vulnerable young adults who had been homeless, on probation, involved with the foster care system, or some combination of the three. But in early November 2018, the camp’s renovation had yet to begin, and it was pretty much empty.

Before the daytime staff left Kilpatrick, however, Lockhart and Greene had a job for DPO Anthony Gonzalez, who had a Class B California Driver’s License, meaning he could drive such vehicles as the camp’s bus, and other multi-passenger vehicles. They asked him to check to see which of the facility’s vehicles would start, which required the help of the camp’s maintanance guy, Aaron Chang.  And then, once they were up and running, Gonzalez and Supervisor Greene, were going to gas up enough of the vehicles to evacuate 41 kids.

Unfortunately, finding enough working vehicles turned out to be complicated. For one thing, the 30-passenger bus, which would hold the most kids, was a leftover from years past when Kilpatrick was famous for its sports program, and the bus was used to ferry the youth in residence to games.

On the evening of November 8, however, the bus declined to start and Chang had to jump it.

The camp’s two vans had to be jumped too. The first started successfully after the jump and, like the bus, appeared to hold the charge.  Kilpatrick’s second van, which was slightly larger, refused start at all, despite a series of energetic attempts with jumper cables.

After Gonzales gave up on the second van, he and Greene drove the bus and the working van to the LA County Sheriff’s Lost Hills Station, which was around 20 minutes away. Lost Hills was the county facility where Kilpatrick vehicles were permitted to fuel up.

But this part of the project also had complications. To actually be able to fuel the bus and van, one needed a special code—which nobody at Kilpatrick seemed to have. Several phone calls later, somebody managed to persuade someone else who was high enough on the food chain to lend their code, or whatever it took.

Finally, Gonzales and Greene were indeed able to get the old bus and one van gassed up—which meant they almost had adequate transport for all the kids, plus the requisite staff chaperones needed for such a trip, should everyone have to get out of Kilpatrick in a hurry. But, unless they resorted to private cars, a practice that was frowned upon, they still didn’t have enough seats in the two vehicles to be able to get all the kids out.

“There should have been a log to make sure that all the vehicles are working and gassed up,” one DPO told WitnessLA well after the fact. “And someone should have been assigned to that job. It should have been protocol so that staff and minors would be safe in an emergency.”

Another DPO on duty during the fire agreed. “Since the facility opened, the vans were supposed to be on standby in case we needed them. But there was no one in charge of making sure that happened. If you’re trying to promote a new model,” the DPO said, “I would think that safety concerns like that one would be at the top of the list.”

It was getting late by the time Greene and Gonzalez returned with the now-fueled bus and van, and the night staff had begun to arrive. One night staffer, a woman who lived in Thousand Oaks, announced that she had just evacuated from her own home.

“You know,” she told her colleagues, “that fire’s a lot closer than you think.”

Campus Kilpatrick, Friday morning, November 9, 2018

After helping with the fueling, Supervisor Greene went home, as her shift was over, and Lockhart told her day officers, that she would stay at Kilpatrick, and sleep on a chair in the camp’s conference room. That way, if the fire took a bad turn, the kids would see a familiar face when they woke up, instead of only the night staff who, while competent, mostly watched the campers sleep, thus rarely had much time to form relationships with the individual kids.


The “target hazard”

The night staff began getting nervous around 2:15 a.m. because the wind had clearly picked up. One of the night supervisors, Beatriz Ledezma, called the LA County Sheriff’s Station at Lost Hills to ask about the fire’s location.  Around an hour later, another night supervisor Kim Northern, called again. The smell of the fire was stronger, and there was a lot more ash on the ground.

They thought it wise to wake Lockhart a litte before 4 a.m.

She immediately dialed Director Williams hoping he would hear the phone and pick up even if he’d been sleeping.

He didn’t pick up.

She was relieved when at 4:30 a.m. Los Angeles County Fire Captain Rick Mullen came by to check on the camp. Mullen was the head of the Station 72, the Decker Canyon fire station, and Kilpatrick was part of his jurisdiction.

“I have a big area, 20 square miles,” he explained to WitnessLA. “And that’s my one target hazard.”

A “target hazard,” according to Mullen, “is a building or establishment that has a significant life risk associated with it, such as a hotel, a hospital, and the like. Urban areas may have a whole bunch of them. But I have only one, which is the juvenile detention facility that used to be known as Camp Miller/Kilpatrick, now called Campus Kilpatrick.”

Mullen, a former Marine Corps Colonel who’s been fighting fires for 29 years, told Lockhart that at the moment, the roads were still open, but things would change rapidly, so they should be prepared.

Lockhart thanked Mullen.  Then she managed to get through to one of her staff at Gonzalez, where the cell reception was spotty at best, and told him to spread the word that the day staff needed to come back to Kilpatrick as early as was humanly possible.

At the same time, the camp’s teachers and other  began calling in wondering what to do.  Night Supervisor Northern made an executive decision and told them not to come in, that things were too fluid, but to report to Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar until further notice.

Meanwhile, in the other chaparral-covered canyons nearest to where Kilpatrick was located, residents had already started packing to leave before bedtime on Thursday.

In Topanga Canyon—which was two canyons east of Kilpatrick’s Kanan/Decker corridor—with Malibu Canyon in between—the word went out at 4:32 p.m. Thursday, via Topanga’s “Coalition for Emergency Preparedness” system (known locally as T-CEP) that the “Woolsey fire was moving fast,” and that residents would be wise to “get the large animals out now.”

At 6 p.m. on Thursday, voluntary evacuation orders were in place for Calabasas, Agoura Hills, and Westlake Village.

By midnight Thursday night, the Woolsey fire was being fanned by westerly winds that sometimes hit as high as 70 mph. By 3 a.m., the fire had burned 8,000 acres with zero containment.

Then at 5:14 a.m. Friday morning, shortly after Captain Mullen had stopped by the Kilpatrick, the fire jumped the 101 Freeway at Chesebro Road.

This meant that, unless the wind changed significantly, the fire would run to the sea.

“Everybody was watching the fire, but those of us on this side of the 101 felt if it jumps the 101 everything will be….different,” Mullen told WitnessLA much later.

Then once it jumped the 101 in the Chesebro area,  he said, the main question was “whether it was going to go down Malibu Canyon, or the Kanan/Decker corridor” where Kilpatrick was located.

Of course, the fire did jump, and at first it appeared headed more in the direction of Malibu Canyon, in the direction of Camp Gonzalez.  “But then took a right turn at Mulholland,” Mullen said, which meant it was now headed directly toward Kilpatrick on its path to the Pacific Ocean.


Obstacle course

The fire had yet to hurdle the 101 when DPO Mike Dugan, one of the day staff who’d gone to Gonzales, began the drive back to Kilpatrick. Normally at that time of day in November, the sky above the sparsely populated canyon roads Dugan was driving resembled black silk, with a scattering sequins. But when he turned north from Las Virgenes on to Mulholland Drive, Dugan found himself looking at a sky that was as “bright as a Hollywood premiere,” he told colleagues. That was the moment he began to feel actively freaked, Dugan told friends much later, albiet using much more colorful language.

As he drove further on Mulholland, Dugan ran into a roadblock, where a firefighter told him he would have to turn around.

“There are kids on that hill,” Dugan told the firefighter who, after a grim pause, waved him through.

Around the same time, Anthony Gonzalez, the guy who’d gotten the bus and the van gassed up and ready, was also driving back to Kilpatrick, talking via cell phone with his friend and colleague, DPO Jesse Saldana, another 20-year probation veteran, who worked as a counselor for the kids in one of the camp’s two residential cottages.

Since it appeared they would arrive at Kilpatrick early Gonzalez and Saldana decided to stop for coffee at the McDonalds at Las Virgenes and Agoura Hills Rd, which was en route.  Once at McDonald’s, they saw that the blaze had crossed to the south side of the 101 and was moving visibly seaward, This meant that the exit leading to Kilpatrick had been shut down, with more blocked roads quickly to come.

Gonzalez called Lockhart at Kilpatrick. “I don’t know what you’re seeing,” he said. “But the fire’s here. This is the real thing. There’s going to be a lot of staff late. We can’t get on the freeway anymore.”

The only way for the twosome to get to the camp now was to take Las Virgenes down to the Pacific Coast Hwy, then circle back up into the hills on Kanan Dume Rd., where they could then reach Encinal Canyon Rd. and head up the hill to Kilpatrick.

They arrived at the campus around 6 a.m.  The fire had yet to arrive, but it was coming.

By this time, Lockhart was in constant communication with Director Williams, and texting with Captain Mullen.

“If common sense had kicked in,” grumbled a staff member later, “we would have evacuated the night before and then nobody would be having these conversations. With the proximity of the fires when they started, why did we not evacuate Thursday night? Why were we risking forty-something kids?”

Dorian May was one of the DPOs who went home to sleep. Although he lived in Long Beach, with the bed bug scare he thought it wise to toss his clothes, and he had no extras at the camp.

When he woke up Friday morning at 4 a.m. May immediately turned the TV, and saw that fire conditions had grown more perilous.  He dressed as quickly as possible, then got on the road. But by 5:30 as he hit the Topanga Canyon Rd exit on US-101, he saw there were problems. The freeway exits were closed up ahead, which meant many of the roads that would lead him to Kilpatrick were likely now blocked too. So, like Gonzales, Saldana, and others, his only choice was to take Las Virgenes to the Pacific Coast Highway, and then take whatever route was still open back into the hills from there.

Many of the DPOs at the camp were on a Thursday/Friday/Saturday shift. But others, like Marlon Espiritu, were on a Friday/Saturday/Sunday shift.

Espiritu lived in Pomona but had been monitoring the news like everyone else and wondered if he would get a call telling him to stand down and not to report to work, that the camp was being evacuated.

When no such call came, he left his house at 4:30 a.m.

Espiritu had worked at probation for over two decades, and had been at Kilpatrick since its reopening, but he didn’t know the surrounding area as well as some of his colleagues. So when he hit the jam-up on the 101, he called Dorian May, who knew the area much better. The two worked together at the camp’s information center,  and May easily talked him through the drive.

At 6:58 a.m., a mandatory evacuation was called for all of Malibu between Malibu Canyon Road and Ventura County line. This also meant all related areas south of the 101, to the ocean, according to the official announcement by the City of Malibu.

Meanwhile, Lockhart was still trying to get an answer from Williams, who called regularly to ask for updates.

Dorian May and Anthony Gonzalez were among those who picked up at least one of William’s calls. “What’s the situation up there?” Williams reportedly asked May. “How does it look?”

May explained to other staff later, that Williams then asked him to “go down the hill land talk to the police or a firefighter to see if we should evacuate.”

With the air growing progressively darker and more uncomfortably smoked-filled, many found the request surprisingly out-of-touch.

Yet, for those who either answered or overheard the calls, the message from higher-ups was nevertheless consistent: stay put until you are told to leave.

Lockhart, meanwhile, called or texted Fire Captain Mullen, or someone at his station, approximately once every fifteen minutes to get her own updates on the status of the fire, which she would relay to Williams, who presumably passed the information up the line.

She told him when Kilpatrick was under voluntary evacuation, as she and the staff watched ashes drifting on to campus grounds like huge numbers of some strange genus of grey-white butterfly.

Still, Williams told her to send one of her staff members down to the road closure to find out how much time they had. Meanwhile, the fire moved ever closer.

There was, however, one piece of truly good news. Lockhart believed the problem of not having enough working vehicles was solved. A van from the department’s transportation bureau was scheduled for a routine pick up of a Kilpatrick youth who had to go to court.

Obviously, no one was going to any court that day, but it was Lockhart’s understanding that the van was still coming, that is if the driver could get past the roadblocks—and the fire.

As Lockhart and others waited for news on the transportation van, Williams’ last communication to the supervisor was to again send a staff member to the nearest road closure. Lockhart again sent a DPO, who talked to Los Angeles Sheriff’s deputies who were guarding one of the road closures. The deputies were surprised by the question. They didn’t know anyone was still at Kilpatrick, they said. They’d assumed everyone had already gone. As it happens, no one at Kilpatrick got that message until days later, because, after talking to the deputies, the unnerved staff member got in her vehicle and drove home.

Then at approximately 7:40 a.m. all forms of communication between the camp and the outside world went down—cell phones, landlines, internet, everything.

This was a scary development in that it meant that the staff was suddenly isolated in that it could no longer call or text Captain Mullen or any other fire department contacts.

The only upside was the fact that, in a single moment, the whole notion of permission was rendered moot.


Getting out

The staff member who likely understood the fire danger the best was Bruce Bates, a Deputy Probation Officer who has worked for the department for almost 20 years, and the county’s Department of Child and Family Services for two years before that. He was also part of the implementation team that had worked on the creation of the therapeutic protocol for Kilpatrick.

Bates lived in Malibu, in the hills above Zuma Beach, so he was one of those who could go home at night. This also meant that the fire was front and center on his personal radar from the moment it ignited.  Thus, when he got home at 10:15 p.m. on Thursday night he began pulling out all the family photos, and any other can’t-bear-to-lose-them items that he knew his family would want to evacuate, which meant everybody’s computers and his own laptop, were placed near the front door, ready to be loaded into one of the family’s cars.

When he woke up sometime after 4 a.m. on Friday morning and checked conditions, Bates realized he needed to get his wife, kids, and his mother packed and on the road to his sister’s house in Oxnard before he could go to work.

When Bates arrived at Kilpatrick at 5:40 or 6 a.m. and told Lockhart and others that, whatever the directors were saying,  evacuation was a foregone conclusion.

“We thought he had a special app on his phone,” a staff member said later. “because he knew exactly where that fire was going.”

Weirdly, Bates’ clarity was a relief to the rest of the staff who were starving for definitive information of any kind after what they viewed as hours of dithering by higher-ups.

Lockhart and the rest took him at his word.  While waiting for the rest of the day staff to manage to get in on the ever-more compromised roads, they allowed the kids to sleep slightly later than usual, while.

Once the staff—which now included Supervisor Kahn who had arrived around 7:10 a.m.—did rouse the youth, they decided it was wise to feed them cold cereal in the cottages, rather than take the time to move them to the brightly painted dining hall. After that, the boys got dressed in their newly washed clothes, gathered a few possessions, and were prepared to be loaded–one side of each of the two cottages at a time—in the various vehicles, once they got the go-ahead.

When the phones went down without the hoped-for go-ahead, the supervisors determined that Bates would drive one of the vehicles, as he also had the relevant Class B driver’s license, and Gonzalez would drive the other. There was a brief, panicky kerfuffle about not being able to find the keys to the big bus, so Bates got the keys to the van that was working, while Gonzales managed to locate the wayward bus keys—which turned out to be exactly where they were supposed to be, in the key box.

Bates and others were walking around giving a last-minute check to the van and the bus, when a sheriff’s deputy showed up, stopping only long enough to deliver a quick message.

“You’ve got ten minutes to get out of here,” he told Bates. “Otherwise you can’t leave.”

Looking uncharacteristically rattled, Bates relayed the message, and Khan asked DPO Celina Durazo-Kent to go with him, along with nine of the kids out of the first cottage.

Around that same time, the scheduled transportation van showed up, driven by DPO Will Robinson, who had miraculously managed to get around various roadblocks and increasingly dangerous road conditions.

Staff members quickly shepherded the remaining ten kids from the first cottage into the transportation bureau van—known ever after as the “trans van.”

That left the 22 kids in cottage number two, Aspen, who could all fit comfortably on the big bus, along with a cluster of staff members. Lockhart, Kim Northern, one of the night staff, and a third staff member, had spent the early morning making sure that each of the kids’ “behavior” files, and other important paperwork, were also packed and ready to go.

Now that everyone appeared to be moving toward departure, Bates and Durazo-Kent got on the road before their kids got too scared and antsy.

The staff was just finishing loading the trans van when Captain Mullen and two firefighters arrived in a large fire engine.

He and Lockhart had been in regular contact until the phones went down. Then Mullen, who was also at that time the mayor of Malibu, got tied up for a while dispatching a helicopter to try to pick up a family, plus two large dogs, who were dangerously trapped at the eastern end of his district at Castro Peak, which also held a series of commercial two-way radio towers .  After what would turn out to be a hazardous and widely-televised air rescue, a worried Mullen drove straight to Kilpatrick.

He arrived at about 8:00 a.m. just after Bates and Durazo-Kent’s van had left, and as the trans van, plus a short convoy of private vehicles, were lined up in preparation to follow the first van.

But time had run out. “You need to leave right now,” staff members remember Mullen told those in the convoy. Then he went to find Lockhart.

Trans driver Robinson needed no further prodding, and exited the parking lot with a slightly safer version of a scene out of “The Fast & the Furious,” according to one staff member.

DPO Ron Smith, followed Robinson in his own car.

Mike Dugan, and DPO Nidia Rizo also intended to be part of the convoy.  But as Rizo gazed at the flames that now looked as high as skyscrapers decorating the hill right behind the campus buildings, she seemed to freeze.

“We’re all gonna die,” she told Dugan, or words to that effect.

“You’re right,”  Dugan said, “but not today,” and told Rizo they were both going to get in their cars, and caravan down the hill.

Rizo eventually followed Dugan’s directive, and both of the DPOs headed the direction they saw the vans had taken, assuming that the white bus with the rest of the kids and staff would follow.

But that was not the case.

As the remaining staff members were engaged in what they hoped would be a calm and orderly process of loading the remaining 22 kids from both sides of Aspen cottage on the bus, Mullen took Lockhart aside and broke the bad news.

It was too late to leave driving that bus, he told her. The fire was by then close, having crossed Kanan Dume Rd.  And it was moving very fast.  It was just no longer safe to try to leave with all the kids, Mullen said.  They had run out of time.  They needed to “shelter in place.” He and his two firefighters and the truck would stay with them for the duration.

“It will be okay, Mullen said.

The fire captain was a consummate pro, and his calm was steadying, the staff explained later, but for many his assurances could not help but feel slight when compared to the reality they now realized they were facing.

The staff members stared at the clouds of fire-painted smoke that billowed above the campus like an approaching mob of malign ghosts.

They understood the captain’s point.  If they tried to leave with the bus, all they’d need was one downed tree across the increasingly fire-draped roads to produce a true, life-altering disaster.

The kids had just been loaded inside the bus and no one wanted to alarm them. “We realized we had to stay, and we had to keep it together for the kids,” one officer told us.

“That’s what we had to do.  There wasn’t a choice anymore.”

To be continued… Look for “Facing the Inferno, Part 2,” on August 2!


Editor’s note:  How this series was researched

To report this story, WitnessLA talked to 14 members of LA County Probation who went through some portion of the Woolsey Fire either at Campus Kilpatrick, or as one of those who helped with the evacuation.

Yet, it is important to note that, although we mention quite a few names in this narrative and describe the actions or remarks of various staff members, it does not necessarily mean we talked to those staff members directly.  

We conducted more than 25 hours of interviews to write this story. And we reviewed many pages of written accounts of the fire, and about its effect.

We also interviewed a significant list of LA County Probation sources who did not go through the Woolsey Fire, but who have given us important information about the experiences of those who were at Kilpatrick for some or all of the evacuation period, and about the circumstances surrounding the evacuation.

In addition, we interviewed three LA County Fire captains with knowledge of the Woolsey Fire and the Kilpatrick evacuation, plus civilian sources who are not county employees but who had direct experience with the fire, its timeline, and the sequence of events that took place as the Woolsey Fire raged through the Santa Monica Mountains in November 2018.

If we got anything wrong, please let us know.


Note: “Facing the Inferno: Campus Kilpatrick & the Woolsey Fire, Part 1,” was updated with additional details, and some errors corrected on: July 17, 2019, July 18, 2019, July 19, 2019,  July 20, 2019, and July 30, 2019

52 Comments

  • If you work in Campus Kilpatrick, you know this is a damn lie!!! supervisor Lockheart failed to do her job as a Supervisor and placed our lives and the wards lives st risk. As a reporter, first interview all supervisors and staff before you write a bogus story. You should be ashamed of your story!!! P.s. the entire story is WRONG!!!

  • Editor’s Note,

    Dear Mill, If you have information that you feel I got wrong or missed, please email me at celeste@witnessla.com, and I would welcome a conversation. (I tried to email you, but it bounced back so I assume the email you provided isn’t genuine.) I reached out to a great many staff members either directly or through intermediaries. Some didn’t want to talk to a reporter. But a lot did. Based on what I heard, from staff and others, every staff member who went through that evacuation nightmare deserves our gratitude for their courage.

    Again, please reach out if you’d be willing to talk to me about what you say I’ve gotten wrong. I would welcome your input.

    C.

  • Was Director Williams interviewed for this article?

    What about those above him that would have made the call to evacuate?

  • What role did probation Chief Terri Mc Donald NOT play in this! It’s a damn shame that probation chief Terri has the higher ups so spooked they are scared to make decisions.

  • Please don’t jump to excoriating the Department so quickly. During the fires that raged in the hills around Sylmar, this former manager worked a 22-hour shift. Remaining at my location, calling in to our headquarters every hour with the facility population and staffing. This vigilance was maintained for a few days, 24-hours a day, by managers at the facility and Chiefs. I reported directly to a Bureau Chief. During this period, transportation arranged to cooperate with Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, as well as our own camps, if evacuation became necessary. Preparations were also made at our facility to house “guests,” including the minors and staff of Camp Kilpatrick.

    • But did you have the support of your peers and your immediate boss? Were you left to handle it on your own? Horrible lack of leadership.

      • There is a protocol in place in the event of fire related emergencies, which we followed. In the DSB, we collaborated with top management to coordinate all aspects of preparation in these emergencies. Over the years, BJ has hosted quite a few camp evacuees. What makes this story incredible is the breakdown or absence of protocol. RTSB and DSB have cooperated in this kind of emergency many times. Why was this such a close call?

        • Interesting non-answer. I assume that means that you did not have the support of your peers and immediate boss. Way to cover

          • Let me be direct in responding. In these circumstances, everyone worked together to follow protocol and avert emergent circumstances. Everyone means everyone, from Bureau Chief to GSN.

  • If you really want this Truth and so many more situations Probation staff want to talk but are hunted down by Chief Mc Donald’s Termination squads her personal enforcers Internal Affaires Deputy’s trying to further their careers on the backs of Good Men and women. Offer a phone hot line and that way we don’t have to worry about internal affairs coming after us for speaking the truth.

  • I have worked in the LA CO Probation Department for 20 years and every location that holds any minors has practice drills and evacuation plans. Chief Mc Donald was more worried about not camp Kilpatrick not looking like the rest of our institutions and more worried how Kampus Kilpatrick looked to the outside world the very basics were purposeful left out. You build a state of the art Kampus make sure staff don’t wear uniforms to show that they are law enforcement Officers all of this but you can’t evacuate minors 42 minors plus staff a complete breakdown of any other Probation facility complete failure of staff the chain of command was not followed. There were 10 Kampus Kilpatrick staff that got into their personal vehicles and abandoned their post they didn’t help to evacuate they just left No SDPO gave them permission. [WLA edit] a DPOI abandoned his post and as he was fleeing the area for his personal safety disregarding his job duties [WLA edit]. These staff have been promoted since then or they are on a list to promote to a higher position of authority than they were then. [WLA edit] SDPO Kohan did a tremendous job that night a complete breakdown of any command structure. The staff that stayed and helped should be recognized for sure but [WLA edit]. To mention such a great person as SDPO Kohan as her entire contribution was clean laundry off site for bed bugs and Not to mention her taking control of a dangerous and out of control situation once she returned. [WLA edit]

  • It appears there were no training or protocols in place for such potential fire disaster. That fact falls on the department heads and not the officers on the ground who had to save themselves as well as the minors in their care. When facilities are located in the mountains and you have buses and van’s with no gas and dead batteries this highlights a department that doesn’t give a damn about the safety of its employees or the minors under their supervision. The fish usually stinks from the head down. I believe the staff did the best they knew how under very stressful conditions.

  • Editor’s note:

    Dear “Truth Must Prevail,”

    I edited one of your comments because it is not appropriate to talk smack here about Campus Kilpatrick staff members who went through any part of the Woolsey Fire experience.

    As for the rest, this series cannot, by definition, ever adequately credit all the heroic actions of the staff members who were put through the trauma of being in the path of that fire. Hopefully, Part 2 will make up at least some of that ground. We are doing the best we can to capture the staff’s experience within the limits of a news series. Yet, we would certainly welcome any constructive input from those who were present about what you think we’re missing. Furthermore, we will aggressively protect the anonymity of anyone who reaches out to us.

    I hope your weekend is a good one.

    C.

    • I hope you can reach out to Maintenance staff, Aaron Chang who was one of the many unsung heroes that Thursday night and Friday.

  • Editor’s Note:

    Jg,

    That’s what I hear. It’s my understanding that he made a huge difference. I’d really, really love to talk to him. Any help in making that happen gratefully accepted.

    C.

  • What about the nurse that came in despite the roads being closed and told no evacuation was ordered when she called in?

  • You will never get to the truth by editing honest people’s concern because then t s no longer considered voice thought his sitewanted the truth and apprenty there is NO such thing allowed. One huge mistake is that just because you were not prsent doesn’t mean the Probation staff don’t understand and that is it true. [WLA edit]

  • Speaking the truth I n your words Is talkng smack accruing to you. I thought you wanted to know the truth but you only want sections that serve you that’s no the truth that’s looking the other way until someone dies.

  • Speaking the truth I n your words Is talkng smack accruing to you. I thought you wanted to know the truth but you only want sections that serve you that’s no the truth that’s looking the other way until someone dies. I need a safe number to talk

  • Editor’s note:

    Jg, I just emailed you.

    Concerned staff, I don’t think I know about his. It sounds important. Will you please tell me more/

    Jg, Concerned Staff, and Truth,

    My email is celeste@witnessla.com

    The email that comes to that address is seen only by me.

    C.

  • Editor’s note:

    Dear “Truth Must Prevail,”

    Allow me to repeat: on WitnessLA, you can’t call staff members out by name whom you feel did the wrong thing during the fire. This not the correct venue for such accusations. And yet you did just that once again.

    Last warning.

    C.

  • As a reporter isn’t it your job to find the true facts no matter the direction it takes you in ,even if it flips your story upside down isn’t that what a true reporter does?? Why communicate with people if your only looking in one direction and refuse to understand the culture in Probation and how the last two Chiefs have destroyed the moral of its own work force. Your interest in LA CO Probation should be one with a wide view of the structure from Chief Mc Donald all the way down. Our union is fighting for it’s members and on this Tuesday there will be a gathering of 685 members in downtown Los Angeles. If you are truly interested in reporting on Los Angeles County Probation I will give you the address and once there you can speak to several staff in person including our union representatives.Just because some staff were involved in a horrible fire there have been many more life threatening encounters in the Halls and Camps that’s what I mean by a wide view and yes there have been multiple staff that have frozen from acting out their duties either from fear of being terminated in an Internal Affaires investigation because staff will turn on one another or they are just physically scared of getting injured either way Probation Staff all over the county are in harms way every single day. The reward is no longer there in Probation the Chief has tied the staff’s hands from making a true difference instead administration has sent a clear message to all staff you are not guaranteed a fair investigation and the Chief ‘s true agenda is to weaken the union using her Termination Squads that also target union representatives that speak out against her private directives which sends her personal investigators after them or the people that are represented by that Shopstewart. PLease attend if you truly want a news article that describes the truth.

  • I believe that your right Concerned Honest Person. We need a voice a really loud voice because where do you think all of the violent minors will go as the Chief Tears Probation down from the inside . We should be proud that the LOs Angeles County Probation Department has their first Female Chief what an opportunity she had to show the world what a difference she could make instead of standing on that world stage showing that appreciation for all of the employees of the Los Angeles County Probation Department but she decided to declare war on her hard working staff that make a difference under horrific conditions daily in every position daily. This Department has good hard working people but everyone is in fear of loosing their jobs because once under an investigation you are now in the Chief hands ready to be devastated financially and personally. What this reporter is not understanding it’s not just the staff that have been in that fire but it’s the entire Department the Hall, Camps & the field offices. There is a much bigger story you should attend that hearing on Tuesday board of Supervisors many stories about abuse of power from the Chief s Termination Squads that what Probation employees call the Chief ‘s Internal Affaires Investagators. Lots of violent minors are being released daily to group homes and being released early from camps without giving them all the opportunities for behavioral change. Research the cities crime rates they are all going up and the city’s are asking for more tax hikes and government assistance for this. I wish you were the type of reporter that wanted the facts no matter what direction it took you. You should ask for permission to visit the Halls & Camps

  • Editor’s note:

    Dear Concerned Honest Person and Union 685,

    Please contact me. I would welcome both of your input. I’m easy to find.

    C.

  • Where was Director Kathrine Beigh? Why are you throwing Director George Williams under the bus? Where was Assistant Chief Sheila Mitchell (on vacation), Deputy Director Dave Mitchell (on vacation) and Bureau Chief Garcia (on vacation)? Why were they allowed to go on vacation and the fire was raging? Who was left in charge to make decisions regarding evacuation on the minors and staff? Where was Chief McDonald? Why is this article protecting Shelia Mitchell, Dave Mitchell (ret), Elizabeth Garcia (ret) and Chief McDonald?
    DPOs, let’s not throw each other under the bus. The decision to evacuate was made up top ( when it was finally made) and it was not made at the Director’s level( they don’t have that type of power). It was made at the Chief’s level.

  • Witness la, some people have said, and experts have agreed that witness la has been less than fair with the probation department. Perhaps a blue ribbon commission could be formed in order to look into the bias.

  • “They’re raking trees, little trees like this – nut trees, little bushes, that you could see are totally dry. Weeds! And they’re raking them. That should have been all raked out,” You wouldn’t have the fires.” ~Donald Trump

    If you ever feel stupid, just remember some people actually voted for this guy. #AnybodybutDT2020

  • Chief Mc Donald has done nothing but destroy the Probation Department from the inside out I have personally meet with the Chief several times but she is very dishonest. 685 union had a president that was officially band for life after the Chief and him were in collision with him. Tomorrow is a rally in down town Los Angeles. There is a fantastic union Stewart that has been in the county for 25 years and has been attempting to save its members from attacks from the Chiefs Internal Affaires Divison that is using them to weaken union 685. Many good hard working Probation employees on all levels and ranks are in danger every day from minors and staff that will give false testimony to get promotions. The number of staff that are not being given a fair internal hearing are staggering. The termination rate and discipline are the highest in the country we are told by our union. Once you are terminated the time for a civil service court date could take years to get your career back it’s a career not just a job. The highest college educated Probation Department in the world and it’s members are under attack daily. Administration is two faced and will give verbal orders and then state in many cases that they did not. Who do good people turn to for help? Millions in lawsuits for wrongful termination cases are all being processed in the courts our leader Chief Mc Donald is walking us off the cliff. 500 west Temple ST Los Angeles 90012 9:00a.m. Hearing please help us lots of good people have been disaplined by dishonest administrators and overzealous Internal Affaires staff. Please post a site or a reporter to us so that many of us can get help we have a small voice and the Department is destroying its own employees families breaking lives of those who choose to serve the public are now being financially destroyed and has caused many to give up and leave the department. My kids no longer have their medical and I’m loosing my home because of dishonest administrators. Many of us will get our back pay once we win our civial service cases and then our wrongful termination or disaplined cases but for now they break up their own employees families and destroy lives of those who choose to serve after achieving their Bachelors Degrees.

  • Union Steward that would absolutely speak with you on and off the record. Byrd is a Deputy Probation Officer II and has been fighting for us for 25 plus years. Antelope Valley Office . Great man

  • Stop complaining I believe it’s everyone for themselves don’t care about your family I’ll get ahead in this Department because people like you are weak ,you actually care that makes me sick. Who cares about those kids I’m just in it for the money. So what if you lie on another staff if you get ahead like everyone else did you can get administration pay over 100,000.00 plus and the bonus for keeping Overtime pay low on their budgets who cares it’s a job but I will become one of those soon.

  • I’m with you in this Department you have to do what ever you need to. I started 3 years years ago and this Department is racist and sexist I will not loose my job so I don’t rush to stop fights or help staff I let things happen then I’m free of an investigation. You have to network with people to survive. The veteran staff all need to retire and let this new generation of staff run it just like our President Trump says.

    • Not HELP Staff. How do You come to WORK and not HELP when needed. That’s your Duty. No wonder WHY our Dept. and Staff are DIVIDED.
      Veteran Staff set the foundation for Newer Staff. No wonder it’s the 15th and 30th

  • This Chief keeps closing down facilities we as staff don’t matter so I agree be ruthless and survive. People that want more work out of you in bad conditions should personally suffer so I don’t help either unless it’s a friend then you write what ever gets them or your self free of any Internal Affaires investigations. I will keep my job no matter what I have to do even if a DPOII or SDPO gives me an order I’ll just say no it’s unsafe.

  • This Chief doesn’t care about the young youth under our care nore does she care about staff . Living conditions are horrible at these facilities. Females don’t have clean restrooms to shower and groom nore does the male staff. Best description of these facilities is living in portapotties urine on the floor not clean. The dorms the youth live in staff don’t clean poor hygiene all around just filth. When people feel you don’t matter they give up also huge problem in Probation. I love my job but I don’t do as much as I can for fear of an investigation everyone is scared. The youth feel they are not wanted like society has thrown them away so why should they care lots of violence because Probation has tied the hands of many good people in fear of loosing their jobs or their retirement. Camp Rocky is horrible living conditions are unacceptable . Most staff just feel like the department has just thrown all of us away. So sad so very sad.

  • The BOS picked the probation chief after she did such a wonderful job at turning the Sheriff’s Department around. Cough…Cough…BS.

    Well, she must be a good song and dance, flam women since they bought into her resume of 30+ years at CDC. Since the Sheriff’s Department Custody Division houses adults, I guess the BOS thought her experience was a natural fit for heading the Probation Department.

    As they say, Will wonders never cease.

  • I hate working with staff that do to much when they try and alter programs because that’s just more work and I’m not being paid enough to do that much. I don’t like that staff who try and be social workers Probation Officers are not social workers we just house the minors for the court don’t try and change their lives it’s a waste of time. As a DPOII who worked at CMYC before it’s closing you had staff doing to much to alter their behavior because then I had to take boards behind those people it was horrible that why I stepped on staff and wouldn’t help them. What ever I had to do to get rid of staff like that I did I came from the hood so writing against a staff who I didn’t like was easy just to get rid of them. I’m also a business man who owns a funeral home in Inglewood part of my business comes from the gang feuding and that’s just life who are we to stop that circle of violence.

  • What is going on in this Department? If all of this is true which sounds like it is maybe the Sheriff Department should do an investigation of this fire in regards to the children that were placed in harms way with no clear leadership in place those staff that actually acted in the face of danger should be commended at the same time the Sheriff Department needs to be called in because there are a lot of people that should be charged with child indangerment especially those staff that failed to perform while on duty and for those staff that abandoned not only the children but also those brave staff should be immediately discharged from Los Angeles County Probation. Channel 2 is investigating the money that administration is spending to do breathing exercises to better perform their duties 17,500.00 should be given to the authorities to hold all the line staff that fleed their post and to hold those administrators accountable for not having procedures in place or enforcing them. A huge dangerous fire approach’s and no one thought at the facility Kampus Kilpatrick lets start gathering supplies, files and the biggest one should have been checking the vehicles to see if they work before the fire was able to get that close. The model that Probation put on the world stage failed Los Angeles County parents , taxpayers and the world it just seamed like staff who fleed without permission in their personal vehicles should face the court system because they took an oath like every public servant does there is pride in that you don’t work in law enforcement for the money it’s more for the passion to help others in need. The Chief needs to allow outside law Enforcement agencies both state and federal to conduct the investigation and not only of this fire that placed so many lives in danger but staffs conduct while on duty seams like a complete breakdown of the public’s Probation Department.

  • Enough !! Get the camera footage!! That Kampus Kilpatrick is the state of the art facility and part of that 43 Million Dollar Tax Payers solution to criminal behavior Where is that Camera Footage every camera has audio and night vision. Cameras inside the instatuion are placed at the best possiable angle to capture the behavior of the minors reacting to the trained staffs learned deescalation techniques. Let the Sheriff Department view the camera footage to find the proof if staff left the facility without helping their fellow Deputy Probation Officers the parking lot videos will show the staff , types of vehicles and how many of them left investigators will be able to clearly view who they are. The cameras will also show how difficult it was for the remaining staff to organize with fewer Deputies despite their personal danger did the right thing as a human being not just an Officer on duty. The footage would show all of the heroes that are not being given credit for helping evacuate the Kampus despite their official title. The Probation Department doesn’t want to open them selfs to the Sheriff’s Department because many Probation Officers would be charged with child endangerment and the same would happen to all the administrators that where in charge that day and the failed command structure that goes all the way to Chief Mc Donald and everyone knows how bad her proffestional and personal relationship has been strained from her beloved Los Angels County Sheriff Department. Those Sheriffs that knew her were probably just waiting for to make Los Angels County Probation Department even worse which no one thought that was possible. Once more people should be charged for child endangerment , failure to perform their duties and covering up this potential killer fire could have done to the Kampus population what happens if no one acts now ?! What happens if there is a major earthquake or in the raining season mud slides are we to expect different results if nothing happens if no disciplined Termination happens. The rest of the Probation facilities could be worse if those in charge are allowed to remain in command and those Deputies remain in charge of the children and those staff are allowed to promote are we to believe that anything will change by paying money to these people. The parents of every single child who was housed at Kampus Kilpatrick should force an investigation and sue the department maybe their attorneys could force the investigation and get testimony from staff that were there that day to show command breakdown Kampus Kilpatrick’s state of the Art facility on the World Stage.

  • To every parent that was ever ordered by the Los Angels County Court system to give their child to the Probation Department inorder to hold your Son accountable for their actions needsto find a law firm to hold Los Angels County Probation Department accountable for sending their children to Kampus Kilpatrick under the pretense that our children would receive help to change their behavior. The staff that were in charge of them to do so failed to meet the basic standards KEEPING OUR CHILDREN SAFE and out of harms way. Ridiculous to think that NO legal action has been done and all the news attention is on spending cost in Santa Monica. Channel 2 needs to focus on what those administrators have actually done to all of its facilities and one of the most Horrific breakdowns in child safety in their protection. I agree there has to be a push for the top State law enforcement and even a Federal investigation on the entire Department.

  • There needs to be collaboration of the News Media this is a much bigger story than you started with ,it seams that it connects lots of dots. Please all of the people that have posted and thousands that have read this article and the comments needs to be heard without the fear of retaliation for all of those Probation Employees the public needs to hear their stories all of of them from every angle. This is the largest Probation Department In the World and the people that are having to work under such horrific conditions their voice needs to be heard and the parents of these children their voices need to be heard. With out the check and balance procedures in any public tax funded agency No citizen is really safe so how do we as a society have the Court system order offenders both Adults and Youth to the care of Los Angels County Probation. The Los Angels Police Department has been scrutinized for decades along with the Los Angels County Sheriff Department there has been lots of reform done in those departments that have created better relationships with the public they serve . These law enforcement agencies and many other agencies that arrest individuals and are later sentenced to Probation and its AB109 Parole program may think twice about arresting those individuals or violating their Probation or their Parole . No law enforcement agency wants to be connected in any way with unlawful acts against citizens or any person and that’s what happens once those agencies arrest them because those individuals are handed over to theLos Angels County Probation Department who is in charge of those individuals once arrested and sentenced by our court system both Adults and Youth . Los Angels County Probation also receives Millions from the Federal Government along side their huge state funding to help our citizens that need help in their personal life’s and need the treatment from mental health and to protect its law abiding citizens and all the victims that those people created . Every law enforcement agency in this country has Probation and Parole Departments because there is a need to change their behaviors and protect their victims from further harm it a necessary to have a Probation Department but we should never allow such a dysfunctional Department to continue to operate with out the check and balance system. If any Judge both adults and Juvenile along with any top law enforcement agency that reads these comments from its citizens should be demanding that The Los Angels County Probation Department allow an outside agency to conduct a full investigation on their internal affairs division to find out if they are intimidating possible witnesses from coming forward against those in charge and to find out if the discipline they have given their employees and termination of other employees was justified through a unbiassed system or was internal Affairs used to quite those staff from reporting real issues that addinistration reused to act knowledge exists in the Probation Department.

  • When will part II be released? Why hasn’t the Board of Supervisors and their Probation Commission done anything to help us in Probation. I’m physically getting sick with PTSD every day I have to go to work . People are scared every day if this will be the day I loose my families way of life. My children go to private schools my home has a high mortage my vehicles still have payments and my wife is pregnant I can’t loose my insurance and my income. Other staff make bad choices because they feel disrespected by minors so they act out and you get pulled in no where to turn. Lots of staff are looking for other jobs now because the Department is so unstable we should not be in this situation after college. Lots of staff are reading this article and others so much chatter amount the ranks every day and night. This Department is on the verge of major eruptions with the population and the new minors that come in off the streets bring messages with them for more violence because this Department has been weakened by the Chief and her administration and their private police force Internal Affaires. This is a public funded Department without oversight. Our Unions are willing to sacrifice some of their own to get a better contract. I don’t want my wife and kids to be forced to move out of state because of allegations.

  • What are Supervisor Deputy Probation Officers responsibility in those Detention facilities?? I don’t understand how the Probation Department has a command structure but when leaders need to act they blame others. I served in the United States Army during Vietnam and you always fought for the people next to you in the fox holes. My Grandson was arrested for being around the wrong people I thought having him do his time in a camp setting would create a better person but the stories he came back with didn’t reflect any type of change . We did ask about his treatment but we didn’t get far the staff were very quite when parents would ask during visiting. This Department scares the Hell out of me because there seams to be no real role models that’s sad because our young people make mistakes and the public needs help sometimes because of their environments that makes it difficult to raise children not everyone has the financial ability to move to other cities. When I came back from Vietnam I was yelled at and spit on , called baby killer while in uniform and I was a young man. I lost many family members in that war so did my Father in WWII . I State these facts because the United States of America stands for so much more across the world and most of your Heroes that returned were young men and women. The Nation called us to duty why would this Department treat our Youth our future with such distain. This country Now values it’s Men and Women that serve our Nation where is the Los Angeles County Probation’s pride to serve it’s community’s.

  • I pray for the individual who ever felt the need to take the time out of their day to make false statements/comments under my name. God bless. Have a great day. TheRealEStripling

  • Dear “RealEStripling,”

    I’m so sorry that you had to go through this. Should anything of that loathsome nature ever show up again, please email me right away.

    Dear Fake “EStripling,” you’re banned. Permanently.

    C.

  • Dear Cmyc (whose comment I just deleted),

    If you have a personal issue with someone who works for LA County Probation, file it with the department. Don’t bring your anonymous accusations here. I’ve let your zillion personalities slide, but you’ve just stepped over the line.

    It’s fine to criticize department higher-ups—at least within reasonable bounds. That sort of thing comes with their respective jobs. But to make accusations against line staff is not permissible at WitnessLA.

    If you have a problem with these boundaries, that’s fine. But then you need to take your attacks elsewhere.

    This is your last warning.

    Thank you in advance for your cooperation.

    C.

  • The truth will be unzipped soon enough for the news organizations to see what’s hiding in its rank and file from the Chief to employees.

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