Holy Fire Suspect Pleads Not Guilty as His Attorney Raises Possibility of Another ‘Viable’ Suspect

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Forrest Clark appears in court on Dec. 12, 2018. (Credit: Pool)

Forrest Clark appears in court on Dec. 12, 2018. (Credit: Pool)

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A man suspected of sparking the destructive Holy Fire has pleaded not guilty to arson charges at his arraignment Wednesday.

Forrest Gordon Clark spoke little during his third court appearance in Orange County, in which a public defender entered the plea on his behalf.

The attorney, Nicole Parness, asked that Clark be released on his own recognizance, saying in court that she had received a police report from the government indicating a second "viable" suspect in the case.

But her assertion was disputed by the prosecutor and later by the Orange County Fire Authority, which has closed its investigation into the wildfire.

"Fire investigators have looked at all physical evidence and witness statements and we believe there are no additional credible suspects responsible for this fire," the agency said in a statement emailed to KTLA.

"We remain confident we have the appropriate individual in custody," the statement reads.

The prosecutor said there’s no credible evidence to show that another individual started the wildfire, which burned nearly 23,000 acres — roughly 35 square miles — in Orange and Riverside counties last August.

A judge ruled that Clark’s bail would remain at $1 million.

The arraignment took place after a third psychiatric evaluation showed the defendant to be competent.

Clark was first ordered to undergo a mental exam back in August, when he acted erratically and made rambling statements in court, telling the judge at one point that he "comprehended" the charges against him but "did not understand" them.

A third exam -- the deciding tie-breaker -- demonstrated he was competent to face arson charges stemming from the Holy Fire, the Desert Sun reported.

The suspect was arrested on Aug. 7, the day after the blaze ignited and burned through the Holy Jim area, where Clark lived. His cabin was the only one of 14 still standing in the aftermath, the Orange County Register reported.

Clark had apparently been involved in a long-running dispute with a neighbor, as well as other cabin owners in the Trabuco Canyon area. Weeks before the fire erupted, he sent a text message to the chief of the Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department predicting the area would burn, the Times reported.

Speaking to reporters after the arraignment, Parness cast doubt on the text in question, saying records are being looked at to see if such a text was ever sent. She noted it hasn’t been located yet in cellphone record.

Orange County District Attorney Jake Jondle, however, dismissed the notion that the wrong suspect is being prosecuted, citing a combination of text messages, audio recording of threats that were made, and the proximity to the events.

“It was brought up as a thought or an alternative theory on the case,” he told reporters. “As far as possible additional suspect, there’s no credible evidence to suggest that is the case. We’re confident that Forrest Clark is the correct suspect.”

He confirmed that investigators are still processing incoming evidence, including cellphone downloads and evidence that were obtained through search warrants.

Clark has been charged with multiple counts of felony arson, criminal threats, and resisting and deterring an executive officer.

Parness maintained her client’s innocence, saying the report deserves a closer look.

“It should be paid attention to, it should be listened to and it should be taken very seriously,” she said.

Clark faces a possible maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted on all charges, though he would be eligible for parole, according to Jondle.

Wednesday's court appearance marked the fourth time an arraignment was scheduled for Clark.

The first two tries were postponed, once because he refused to leave his jail cell, and the second after he made somewhat contradictory statements and appeared to exhibit bizarre behavior.

And it was during the third that the judge ordered Clark to go undergo the evaluation.

The defendant's next scheduled court appearance is on Dec. 20.

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