Judge Sentences Arsonist to 3 Years in Prison — (Los Angeles Times)

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Los Angeles Times

June 14, 1997


Courts: Defense witnesses portray Kenneth Lee as a troubled man struggling with alcoholism. But others call him a manipulative felon.

Warning that serial arsonist Kenneth Allen Lee might “get out and light up half of Ojai” if he were denied probation and psychiatric treatment, Lee’s own lawyer pleaded Friday to keep him out of prison.

But Judge Steven Hintz gave Lee a sentence of three years and four months for torching two swaths of Ojai-area wilderness last spring, saying “the best interests of society” need protection from a serial arsonist with a history of mental problems.

“I think the defendant is a very high risk, both a high risk to set fires and a high risk to go off an alcoholism program that requires voluntary cooperation,” said Hintz.

“The offenses were very serious and placed the community at great risk on many occasions–almost certainly more than we know of.”

Lee muttered afterward, “Oh well, that’s that,” after the sentence was read, and walked out of the courtroom with his family. He remains free on bail so he can get his affairs in order, before reporting Tuesday to the Ventura County Jail for transfer to the California prison system.

Lee was also ordered to pay $161,919 to the U.S. Forest Service for the costs of fighting the fire. In addition, he was fined $1,000.

The two felonies he pleaded guilty to expose him to California’s three strikes law if he lights another fire when he gets out, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Simon.

“I’m hoping he doesn’t set another fire,” Simon said. “If he does, we’ll catch him, and he’ll get 25 to life.”

The sentencing hearing in Ventura County Municipal Court bared the intimate details of Lee’s psyche, as lawyers argued and witnesses testified about his urge to burn and the likelihood that he might succumb to it again.

Two portraits emerged of the 35-year-old offshore oil rig worker.   The defense described Lee as a troubled, illiterate alcoholic, a man afflicted by an impulse-control disorder, a man who lit fires to relieve the depression seething within him after he suffered head injuries and childhood beatings at the hands of an abusive father.

But Deputy Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Simon described Lee as a manipulative felon who is almost sure to commit arson again.

Defense attorney Victor Salas Jr. offered two witnesses to say that Lee–after nearly a year of obeying the law since his arrest and seeking help for his problems–is on the mend.

Oil rig employee Rex M. Pearson said he is sponsoring his boss in the Alcoholics Anonymous program, where Lee is working his way through the 12 steps to sobriety.

“Just living within the parameters of the 12-step program will help him,” Pearson said.

Clinical psychologist Katherine Emerick told the court Lee is treating his depression with Prozac and his alcoholism with Antabuse, a drug that wracks the user with nausea any time he or she tries to drink.

“If you control the depression and the alcoholism, you go a long way toward preventing the state of mind” that spurs arson, testified Emerick, who was hired by Lee to examine and treat him through psychotherapy.

“He was the kind of dad who would come home from work and drink a six-pack and flop on the couch and watch television,” she said.

“He was not very attentive to his wife and children, and was kind of a husband and father in name only,’ she testified. “Now, he’s come back to life and become a part of his family now that his brain’s not pickled.”

Lee told Emerick he did not know why he set the fires, she said: “He told me, ‘I love animals, I love people. Fortunately, no people were hurt, but I feel sorry for all the animals that died.’ ”

And she estimated only a 5% chance that Lee would light more fires if allowed to continue receiving treatment while on probation.

But Simon cited a different reason that Lee gave for setting fires near Ojai, the last of which scorched 145 acres of the Topa Topa Mountain foothills on June 29, 1996.

Lee told court-appointed psychiatrist Rex Bieber “that it was necessary to his hunting hobby,” Simon said. “He said that clearing the brush by fire caused the animals to return to the area” and improved hunting conditions, he said.

“It’s down to whose psychiatric report we want to believe, whose report do we want to take a chance on,” Simon said, arguing for the court to give Lee a sentence of five year and four month.

Lee used a time-delay arson device to set his fires, and torched wild land during fire season “so he could get the most burn” and even admitted endangering people’s lives, he said.

Salas countered that Lee is getting drugs and treatment for his fight against alcoholism and depression, that he set no fires since his arrest, and that prison would only deny him the opportunity to continue improving.

“I imagine the first thing he’d do when he got out [of prison] is to light up half of Ojai,” Salas said.

But after Hintz chose prison over probation, Salas conceded, “I think the judge had a choice. He looked at a 5% chance of [Lee] setting another fire or a 0% chance, and he had no choice.”