Only a lad

Barber Yard

Barber Yard

Burning down a historic building—on two separate occasions—may not always get a juvenile the maximum sentence in the California Youth Authority, prosecutors in the Barber Yard (aka the Diamond Match property) arson case asserted this week after the 17-year-old culprit was handed a sentence that will keep him in CYA until he is 25. While two other young men were given deferred judgments—basically juvenile probation—for the same crime, it was the 17-year-old’s prior record that made the difference.

“I think the sentence is well-earned,” Assistant D.A. Marc Noel said. “He’d been on probation for quite some time and he had continually violated. He’d been offered chance after chance after chance.”

The two fires set in August and November at the Barber Yard, a historic facility in southwest Chico, drew public outrage and cost millions to the property’s owner, who had planned to rehabilitate the structures for use as commercial buildings in a new subdivision. The site, once used to process lumber and make Diamond brand matches, has been vacant since the 1980s, and despite the efforts of police had become a hangout for teens and the homeless.

The August fire, Noel said, was started when a dozen or so partying teens built a bonfire on the concrete floor of the apiary building. On that night, three teens, all of whom were later convicted of arson, brought burning planks from the fire into a former office area, where they had been kicking holes in the drywall. When they placed the burning wood into some of the holes they had made, the entire building was set ablaze, forcing the whole group to run for the exit. Nobody was hurt, although one girl on the scene reportedly told prosecutors she looked over her shoulder after running from the blaze and saw flames shooting out of the door they had just fled through.

The fire was left unsolved for months, until the 17-year-old returned to the property in November 2004 with two neighborhood girls. The group lit a fire in another historic building, an old warehouse with a wooden floor, which burned down as a result.

Chico police eventually pieced the crime together and the three teens, the one who had a hand in both fires and the two that helped start the August fire, were convicted of arson. The two from the August fire were placed on juvenile probation, but the other young man was sentenced to CYA for the maximum seven years. He will likely serve most of that time.

The young man’s attorney, Tracy Tully-Davis, argued that sending the boy to CYA would almost be tantamount to throwing his life away.

“I was disappointed with the judge’s ruling,” Tully-Davis said this week. “The majority of his problems [stemmed from] alcohol and drugs. He wasn’t able to get clean by himself. His mom worked full-time out of town and really was just not able to provide that structure.”

Tully-Davis had tried to persuade the judge to place the minor in a wilderness boot camp for boys, but the boy’s prior record apparently worked against him. Noel said the young man had felonies dating back to at least 2002, including auto theft and battery.

“In juvenile court, the only decision the judge can make … is, do we put him in the youth authority or back on probation,” Noel said. “He’d already been on probation. He’d essentially exhausted all other means of rehabilitation.”