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San Benito
April 20, 2024

No agencies are leading fatal fire investigation

There is no public safety agency taking credit for investigating the cause of a fire that led to the death of three people Monday.

The San Benito County Sheriff’s Office has a theory as to how a camping trailer in south county started on fire, leading to the death of a woman and her two children, but at this point there is no public safety agency staking claim to the official investigation into a cause and other factors like the fire’s origin.

A 27-year-old mother and her two children, ages 3 years old and eight months, are believed to be the fatal victims in the fire to a camping trailer Monday night in the 20000 block of Panoche Road in Paicines. At 10:30 p.m. Monday, the sheriff’s office responded to the Panoche Fire where authorities found the bodies in the trailer. Hollister fire had responded to the camping trailer fire, and Calfire responded once it spread into grasslands.

As of Thursday, Calfire, the Hollister Fire Department and sheriff’s office all said other agencies should be handling the probe. A sheriff’s office captain did say his agency believes it’s possible a barbecue pit fell over and started the blaze.

Capt. Eric Taylor with the San Benito County Sheriff’s Office, however, also said his agency is acting as the coroner in this case and doesn’t believe there is evidence of wrongdoing that would spur a criminal investigation.

“Somewhere at some point, some firefighter is going to have to write a report with some findings as to what happened,” Taylor said.

He said sheriff’s office investigators are interested in the cause and were awaiting word on that from Calfire.

“I will tell you we stood out there with firefighters that pointed us to the tipped-over Webber grill,” Taylor said. “They told us when they got there that was the hottest area.”

Calfire and the Hollister Fire Department, both of which responded to the scene, both claimed other agencies should be handling the fire investigation.

Hollister fire Battalion Chief Kenneth Melin on Thursday said he thought Calfire was responsible for the investigation. The Hollister Fire Department contracts to handle responses in county areas and initially responded to the camping trailer fire, which then spread into the grasslands where Calfire fought the blaze until its containment Wednesday at 64 acres.

“We’re not investigating it. The state is,” Melin said. “No, we’re not.”

Melin recollected that the sheriff’s office arrived and he thought a Calfire investigator was handling the probe, but a Calfire spokesman was adamant Thursday that wasn’t the case.

Melin explained that once Hollister fire got on scene and realized it was a potential crime scene “maybe,” crews protected the integrity of the area for that purpose and requested Calfire for the vegetation fire.

A Calfire public information officer, David Clark, was certain Wednesday and Thursday that the state agency is not overseeing a probe into the cause.

“All Calfire’s involvement there was the wildfire aspect,” Clark said Thursday. “We’re only responsible for investigating the SRA (state responsibility area) land.”

As for the sheriff’s office, Taylor said deputies aren’t trained for arson investigations.

“The sheriff’s office doesn’t have training, knowledge or experience to investigate the source of a fire, or burn patterns,” Taylor said.

Sheriff’s investigators did speak to the boyfriend/father of the woman and children presumed dead.

According to Taylor, the boyfriend/father received a call from his late girlfriend earlier that night letting him know there was a fire outside the trailer and she was going to try and put it out. The boyfriend reported to authorities being 40 minutes away at that point, and Taylor said his office confirmed that was accurate.

Witnesses also reported hearing screams on the scene, and told the sheriff’s office the woman may have run back inside in an attempt to save the children.

“That’s our working theory,” Taylor said.

He went on: “We don’t think we have a criminal violation here, or we don’t think the boyfriend/dad is suspected of any criminal act that led to the death of this family.”

He said that’s based on the statement and evidence so far.

“But this whole time we’ve been waiting to hear from the Calfire investigator to hear their expert opinion,” Taylor said, adding how media outlets like San Benito Live were the ones to inform him about the confusion.

The sheriff/coroner is also waiting for confirmation from the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner’s Office on an official cause of death, and the local coroner cannot legally release any names yet, as the bodies were burnt beyond recognition.

“We’re working with Santa Clara medical to figure out how we can legally I.D. it is in fact the woman and her children,” Taylor said Thursday afternoon. “We feel that’s accurate but legally we can’t release their name until we have a legal I.D. it’s them.”

He said the boyfriend’s confirmation is not enough grounds for an I.D. due to the bodies’ conditions.

That boyfriend told sheriff’s officers he had used the grill earlier—and that he may have removed a piece of wood from the grill and placed it outside with dirt around it “to use later.” Taylor said the boyfriend reported using charcoal and wood in the grill.

“He thought he probably took the piece of wood off the fire, extinguished it and put it on the ground,” Taylor said.

Taylor added about the man’s demeanor:

“The boyfriend/father reacted how you would expect them to react that just lost their wife and children, and we we’re able to account for his story, what the events were and where he was,” he said.