Father cops to manslaughter charge after gender reveal sparks deadly California wildfire

A California man who hoped to celebrate the gender of his unborn baby with a family photo shoot but ended up sparking a devastating California wildfire that killed a firefighter pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, prosecutors announced on Friday.

Refugio Jimenez Jr., Angelina Jimenez, and the couple’s small children gathered at Yucaipa’s El Dorado Ranch Park at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains on Sept. 5, 2020, to stage the shoot.

They set off a pyrotechnic device, and the colored smoke it generated was meant to announce the gender of the newest member of their family.

The dry grass in the field caught fire, and, despite efforts to douse it with bottled water, the strong winds on the hot Southern California day sent it racing through the wilderness, turning the national forest land into a blazing inferno.

“Charles Morton, the 39-year-old leader of the elite Big Bear Interagency Hotshot Squad, was killed on Sept. 17, 2020, when flames overran a remote area where firefighters were cutting fire breaks,” according to The Associated Press. “Morton had worked as a firefighter for 18 years, mostly with the U.S. Forest Service.”

(Video: YouTube)

San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson announced on Friday that Jimenez Jr. had pleaded guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of recklessly causing a fire to an inhabited structure.

The father will surrender himself on Feb. 23 to begin serving a one-year sentence behind bars. Upon his release, he faces two years of felony probation and 200 hours of community service.

“Angelina Jimenez pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of recklessly causing fire to property of another. She was sentenced to a year of summary probation and 400 hours of community service,” AP reports. “The couple was also ordered to pay $1,789,972 in restitution.”

“Resolving the case was never going to be a win,” Anderson said in a news release. “To the victims who lost so much, including their homes with valuables and memories, we understand those are intangibles can never be replaced.”

The U.S. Forest Service marked the third anniversary of the deadly fire with a lawsuit against the pyrotechnic device’s manufacturers, distributors and sellers. The couple was also named in the suit. The “Smoke Bombs” used for the gender reveal were illegal in California and were known to be defective, the lawsuit alleges.

“Mike Scafiddi, the lawyer for Refugio Jimenez Jr., said the couple has wanted to speak publicly about the fire, its impact on the community and Morton’s death,” according to AP, “but cannot because of the ongoing federal litigation.”

“They have been praying for Mr. Morton and his family every night since his death,” Scafiddi told the Associated Press on Sunday. “It has touched them profoundly.”

Jimenez Jr. had researched the device online and found no red flags, according to the attorney. Nor did he detect any issues with it when he tested it.

“It was unforeseeable in all minds,” Scafiddi said.

The couple was not hosting a party at the park, as people have for years insisted, Scafiddi told AP. It was “simply” a photo shoot involving the couple, their children, and a few relatives.

“To infer that it was a gathering of multiple people with food and celebration is simply incorrect,” he said. “This was simply taking photographs in what was a beautiful backdrop.”

The El Dorado fire “injured 13 other people and forced the evacuations of hundreds of residents in small communities in the San Bernardino National Forest area,” the Associated Press reports. “It destroyed five homes and 15 other buildings.”

 

Melissa Fine

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