Robbers Fire arson case debates question of intent
Bryon Mason had been at the beach with his wife, two sons age 3 and 5, and their babysitter when he threw the firework that allegedly sparked the 2,650-acre Robbers Fire that burned between Foresthill and Colfax, according to court records.
Mason had thrown a firework into the swimming hole in the past without incident, but this time it would land him in Placer County Jail for about eight months, facing two felony arson charges – until Judge Colleen Nichols ordered his release on March 5, saying there had not been enough evidence to hold him over for trial.
Mason is out on his own recognizance under supervision and is barred from possessing fireworks, and any explosive or incendiary devices. The case is still open, and he is due back in court on April 2.
Court documents obtained by the Journal shed light on what led up to Nichols’ decision that frustrated some in the Foresthill area who want accountability for the fire that cost $13 million to extinguish, burned one residence and four outbuildings and allegedly injured two firefighters.
For the arson charges to hold up, it needed to be found that Mason both caused the fire and acted willfully and maliciously. At the crux of the argument laid out in the preliminary hearing had been what went on inside Mason’s head that day and whether his actions could be interpreted as criminal intent.
When questioned by investigators, Mason admitted to throwing the lit firework and that the fire started right away, according to the brief filed by Placer County Deputy District Attorney Douglas Van Breemen. Mason acknowledged the dangerous nature of the illegal firework by relating a story where a neighbor of his used the same device and it caught his house on fire.
In the preliminary hearing brief written by Mason’s attorney, Thomas A. Luepp, it depicts a frantic and emotional scene after Mason’s firework went off on July 11, 2012, allegedly sparking the fire that threatened 170 residences.
“Once the fire started, Mason rushed to try to put it out, and he stayed there until everyone else had left,” wrote Luepp, who is based in Auburn. “The evidence will show Mason cried, prayed all the way back to his house and tearfully confessed to law enforcement. He expressed great remorse for the unintended consequences of his act.”
“Counsel is aware of no cases where a defendant has been convicted for arson without any evidence that he intended to start any fire at all.”
Reached by phone Monday to get his account of what happened and take on the judge’s ruling, Mason said “I’d like to,” but he had been advised by his attorney not to comment.
“Malice requirement is met here because any reasonable person would appreciate the dangers of lighting and throwing a display firework in the middle of a dry forest in the middle of July with temperatures over 100 degrees and drought conditions,” Van Breemen wrote.
Both defense and prosecution acknowledged that Mason alerted others at the swimming hole in some fashion before lighting and throwing the firework. The defense stated he threw it in the water; the prosecution said he had thrown it toward the water and it may have gone in.
“He did not expect, and it was not objectively reasonable to expect, that a fire would start,” Luepp wrote. “On an earlier occasion he had thrown a firework into the swimming hole causing only an underwater explosion.”
This time, it exploded in the water “and apparently sent an unburned piece of material up into the air” that landed at the top of a rock face 25 or more feet above the water, according to Luepp. The fire started in dry grass on the rocks and spread quickly despite Mason’s attempt to extinguish it, Luepp wrote.
He had been unable to call 911 in the “steep canyon,” and saw fire trucks responding as he left the scene with his family, Luepp wrote.
Mason later told investigators the firework had been the shape of a baseball and that he had more in his car, according to the record.
“These types of devices are to be used with a mortar, not by throwing,” Van Breemen wrote. “Not only did Mason light and throw an illegal explosive, he used it improperly without a mortar which would have lifted it high into the air. … Instead the device was essentially used at ground level, first the lift charge went off, then the display charge which is what everyone witnessed with the explosion and shower of sparks.”
Mason claimed to have been in that area of Shirttail Creek on a prior occasion, helping rebuild the forest after a fire had burned through the area, according to Van Breemen’s brief.
One of Mason’s charges was that he committed arson that caused great bodily injury to a firefighter. The injuries sustained by two firefighters as a result of the alleged arson were a sprained ankle and a “greenstick fracture” of the forearm, according to Luepp’s brief.
The fire burned from July 11 through July 22, 2012, forcing evacuations of Foresthill and Iowa Hill residents for nearly a week.
Jon Schultz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews