VISALIA — Seven different witnesses, six of them current or former officers or detectives with the Porterville Police Department, took the stand Thursday for Day 2 of the Jurisdictional Hearing (trial) for the two youth who are charged with the fire that destroyed the former Porterville Library and took the lives of two firemen — Captain Ray Figueroa and Firefighter Patrick Jones.
One by one they described where they were, what they saw, and what they heard starting at approximately 4:15 p.m. on Tuesday, February 18, 2020 at the former Porterville Library.
Footage videos from a couple of officers’ body-cams were presented as evidence and in the first one showed the path an officer took as he ran towards the library. It showed numerous patrons, many of them youth, exiting the library which was now dark. The path continued inward as the officer ran into the building shouting again and again, “Hello! Anybody in there?” and “Hello? Anybody else?” as he ran from room to room looking for people. A bright orange fire glow could be seen at the back of a room and the officer reached for a fire extinguisher and could be heard coughing. He appeared to crouch down at one point as the smoke engulfed the area. The sound of breaking glass over and over could also be heard as the fire exploded through windows, he said from the stand. Black, thick, billowing smoke could be seen in the footage coming out of the front doors and from the rooftop.
The footage came from Witness No. 2 who said he was writing reports at the Porterville Police station when he heard the call come in.
“I looked out and saw smoke and ran straight to the library,” said the former officer who's now with a police department in another state.
At one point in the video, he picked up a fire extinguisher but didn't engage it, he testified, because items were falling from the ceiling, black smoke was everywhere and he was having to crouch down to stay below the smoke. It was dark, he said.
“I wasn’t able to breathe,” he said. “It was hard to breathe in there. I saw things falling and I was almost on my knees by then and decided to get out.”
A detective/sergeant with the PPD who at the time of the fire was a corporal with the General Investigating Unit said he walked out of the police station after hearing the call and saw fire and began assisting with traffic patrol.
“I was pulled and informed of a situation — one of the firefighters had been pulled out (of the fire) and they were trying to save him,” he said and later added he shifted gears and the investigation went from an arson investigation to a homicide investigation.
Part of his role, he said, was to go talk to the family of one of the youth charged with starting the fire.
The footage from his body-cam was also shown and included a conversation with family members and with the youth who said he had gone to the library with a friend after school that day and left just prior to the fire starting and didn’t know about it because he was in the shower.
“Think real hard about this,” the officer could be heard saying in the video and went on to say there was video surveillance of him at the library when the fire started. “It’s not good to start with a lie. It’s pretty serious….be honest with me. Can you tell me what happened?”
The youth then said the other youth had a lighter and he went to the bathroom while youth No. 2 stayed behind.
“You’ve been lying to me since I’ve been here,” he could be heard saying in the video and added the bottom line was there are many witnesses and there's video.
“What was your involvement?” he asked again in the video before asking him to don a shirt and shoes and he would be taking him to the police department for further questioning.
The story wasn't adding up to what he had, the officer said, and it was still unclear, so he had probable cause to take the youth into custody.
The next witness, also with the PPD assigned to G.I.U, said he was tasked to be a liaison between the police department and the fire arson investigation. The officer’s voice broke as he talked about Firefighter Patrick Jones and cried when he shared hearing they had found his body a couple of hours later, pointed to the wall chart of where in the library he was found, and got emotional when he described finding him, checking for vital signs and more before being dismissed.
For the record, information was also offered on a certified K-9 officer who took part in the library investigation.
“No flammable liquids were detected,” said Attorney John Stinely for the People.
The next officer talked of how he saw three to four firefighters dragging out a firefighter on his back.
“They were crying and screaming,” he said. “Initially I didn’t know what was going on.”
The firefighter appeared unconscious, he said, and was made aware it was Captain Ray Figueroa who was then transported to a local trauma center.
The then officer, now in a department in another town, said he assigned tasks and oversaw them all but paid close attention to who the suspects were and interviewed one suspect, which he identified in the courtroom as one of the youth.
A video of his body-cam at the youth’s home was also shown. In the video the youth said he went to a store after school and then home. When asked if he had been at the library, he said no in the video.
“There’s videos everywhere,” the officer could be heard saying to the youth and the youth said it was the other youth who did it.
“Did you light the piece of paper on fire?” could be heard on the video and the youth replied no.
When asked where the paper was lit, the youth said inside the little playhouse.
When the sixth and seventh witnesses, who at the time of the fire were with PPD as a sergeant and a lieutenant, respectively, came to the stand, they talked about an audio introduced as evidence.
In the audio clipping, the two youth had been placed in a police vehicle where a recording device had been placed. The officer with the vehicle excused himself and left them alone. Shortly after hearing the door close, the two youth started whispering. The recording had been downloaded from a voice recorder placed in the vehicle.
Among the whisperings, barely audible during the presentation, the youth talked to each other.
“Just say it was you and I’ll say it was me,” “You’re not old enough. You have to be 18…..” and at one point mentioned two firefighters had been killed.
It was brought up by the defense one couldn't tell who was speaking and Witness No. 6 said he can piece it together by references made in the audio by the youth, and by their manner of speaking.
Witness 7 said he had asked Witness 6 to place the listening device in the vehicle and then left them alone with the “intention to get them to talk.”
The trial came to a close after Witness 7 said he could recognize the voices and identified the first voice heard.
The Jurisdictional Hearing (trial) will continue at 1 p.m. today at the William Silveria Jr. Juvenile Justice Center in Visalia.