Porterville library fire trial begins for teen suspects

The trial begins against two teens charged with murder and arson for the Porterville library fire that killed two firefighters

TULARE – Two teens are finally standing trial for their role in a library blaze that claimed the lives of two firefighters in early 2020. What’s left to decide is whether the boys made a tragic mistake or intended to burn the building to the ground.

On Aug. 17, at the juvenile facility in Visalia, the trial began against two minors, charged with two counts of murder with special circumstances of multiple murders and arson. Both defendants were 13 years old at the time of the crime. 

Two and a half years ago, on Feb. 18, 2020, the Porterville library went up in flames without a chance of saving it. Captain Ray Figueroa, 35, and firefighter Patrick Jones, 25, were killed as a result of the blaze. Evidence and witnesses put the two teen boys at the scene, but what is left to be determined is whether the boys acted maliciously or recklessly.

Deputy district attorney John Sliney told the judge in the case is simple in his opening statement. With the evidence he plans to bring forward, he said will be able to prove all four counts of murder, special allegations, arson and aggravated circumstances. 

“Two minors went to the Porterville library, they willfully and maliciously lit a fire, that fire burned down the library and killed two firefighters,” Sliney said.

Richard Alvarez, the defense attorney for one of the minors, said in his opening statement that the arresting charge of manslaughter is more akin to what happened that day in February, than what the two juveniles are currently being charged with. However, the minors were also arrested with the charge of arson. Alvarez added that claiming arson means the two boys would have to have acted with malicious intent, which he claims to prove otherwise. 

“The conduct the two minors were engaged in was reckless, nowhere near malicious,” Alvarez said.

The prosecution plans to bring forth testimony from witnesses, first responders, teachers and parents that will illustrate that the two minors knew right from wrong, and they intended to damage the library. Sliney plans to bring in voice recordings of the teens admitting to lighting a piece of paper on fire leading to the devastation of the whole building, as well as footage from body cameras from the first responders. 

Day one in the courtroom consisted of employees of the library as well as those who were there when the fire began. One witness said they saw two boys run out of the library not long before the flames grew out of control. Another compared the fire’s flames to a serial killer. The fire climbed to the ceiling and spread rapidly throughout.

This case is unique in several circumstances. The trial is taking place in juvenile court because the two teens are not eligible to be tried as adults. According to District Attorney Tim Ward in a released statement in 2020, 13 year olds cannot be tried as adults even for a crime that is to the magnitude of murder. In addition under California law, if the minor is found guilty of a crime, even of the highest magnitude, 13 year olds cannot be held in custody once they reach 25.

Additionally Ward explained that Proposition 57, eliminated the discretion for prosecutors to charge juvenile offenders with charges in adult court. Juveniles must be 16 years of age to be tried as an adult. 

According to public information officer Stuart Anderson with the district attorney’s office, because this is a juvenile case, the judge will make the final decision as to whether the two are guilty or not guilty. 

This case was originally set to be heard in October of 2021 according to the district attorney’s office, but unfortunately one of the defendant’s attorney’s David Candelaria, died in late September of 2021. The Tulare County Public Defender’s Office was appointed in his place. The minors have been kept on home supervision without monitors since February 2021.

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