Bail lowered for Caldor Fire suspects; prosecution details how blaze may have started
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Bail for the father and son suspected of causing the Caldor Fire was lowered after a hearing in Mark Ralphs’ El Dorado County Superior Court courtroom Monday.
David Scott Smith, 66, and Travis Shane Smith, 32, were each held on $1 million following their arrest last week. They pleaded not guilty at their arraignment Friday. David, represented by Linda Parisi, saw his bail drop to $25,000; Travis, represented by Mark Reichel, saw his bail go down to $50,000.
Nora Hall from the El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office argued that although the Smiths have clean records, they are now more of a flight risk because they face “a significant state prison commitment” and a “restitution figure” for damage caused.
She estimated Travis’ maximum state prison sentence to be 14 years while David’s would be a maximum of 12 years. She didn’t have an estimate on how much restitution they could face but said, “I have no doubt that it will be huge.”
Parisi argued that her client has remained in the county despite knowing about the investigation for months.
“They were aware law enforcement was talking to them as far back as August,” Parisi said. “What did they continue to do? Go to work, take care of his family, be the law abiding productive member of society he’s been his entire life.”
Hall released details of what may have occurred Aug. 14 — the day the Caldor Fire began. It consumed more than 220,000 acres before firefighters fully contained the blaze.
Hall said Travis and David set off in a side-by-side off-road vehicle at about 4:49 p.m. based off GPS data. At about 6:10 p.m. the GPS pinned them at the origin spot of the fire and they stayed there until 6:31 p.m.
At 6:45 p.m the GPS signal showed the off-road vehicle stopped at Caldor Road, which coincides with the 911 call made at 6:48 p.m. reporting the fire.
Hall said before the fire began there were witnesses in the area who reported seeing two males in a side-by-side vehicle, driving it out of view. Witnesses then heard multiple gunshots.
“When the vehicle returned, that’s when the two males on that side-by-side told the witnesses about the fire and that they tried to put it out,” Hall said. “But they weren’t able to because it was too large.”
She noted that Travis deleted instant messenger chat logs and call logs from on and around Aug. 14.
Two silencers were found in a burn pile at David’s Somerset residence and both of those silencers had fire damage to them, according to Hall, who added, “It appeared they were attempting to destroy those silencers, which are illegal to possess in California.”
She said there have been a number of firearms seized in this case, including a machine gun, also illegal in California.
On or about Aug. 8 of this year, Travis purchased an illegal trigger from Arizona that arrived on Aug. 12, Hall added.
“(Travis) sent messages indicating that he had installed that trigger on his AR that came from Arizona and his father David’s response was ‘Can’t wait to see it operate,’” Hall said.
At the general origin area of the Caldor Fire, investigators reportedly found a number of casings that appeared to have been recently expelled — 9-millimeter, .22-caliber and .40-caliber.
Hall said there are six firearms registered to David that have not been found — all of which are capable of shooting those cartridges.
She added that a few days after the fire began, around Aug. 16 or 17, Travis was researching how to make an AR-15 California compliant.
When making his decision to lower the bail, Ralphs said it would surely be lowered in an appeal.
“The allegations as they relate to the fire are all negligent or reckless in nature, nothing malicious,” Ralphs said. “The fire was not — according to the charges in the complaint — deliberately set.”
He said he received a probation officer’s report indicating that neither of the suspects “even score high enough to warrant pretrial services.”
If David and Travis post their lowered bail, they are ordered to appear at all future hearings — the next will be Feb. 1, 2022 — and to turn over all guns and ammunition to law enforcement within seven days.
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Butte County, Calif. — Last year’s Dixie Fire in Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Shasta, and Tehama counties started on July 13, burned a total of 963,309 acres, destroyed 1,329 structures and damaged 95 additional structures.