A judge has ruled that Orange County Fire Authority officials cannot recover thousands of dollars in costs incurred in the search for a pair of lost Trabuco Canyon hikers, one of whom was later charged with possession of methamphetamine.
The news came as Nic Cendoya pleaded guilty to meth possession charges, which authorities say was found in the car that he drove up to the mountain before getting lost Easter Sunday night with his friend, Kyndall Jack.
The case that drew national headlines turned into a debate about how much the 19-year-old defendant owes to a volunteer who broke his back in the search.
Nick Papageorge's IV, 20, is using a victim's rights law to seek financial compensation for his back surgery and a weeklong hospital stay, which Mission Hospital officials told him cost about $350,000.
“I would like to get compensation for my parents,” Papageorge's said outside the courtroom.
Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who raised the issue of how Marsy's Law factors into the criminal prosecution of Cendoya, said he went to court not as an attorney or supervisor, but as a volunteer family representative helping Papageorge's family with their legal claims.
Spitzer said Cendoya's attorney, Paul Meyer, was “been very gracious” in discussions on resolving the medical expense issues. So far, the family said it has been billed for $10,000 in out-of-pocket expenses and does not know how much the insurance companies will cover.
Papageorge's, who helped with the search for Cendoya and his 18-year-old friend Jack for two days, fell about 110 feet. He had titanium screws put in his back, but doctors have told him he can expect a full recovery that will not inhibit his intended career as a firefighter-paramedic.
Papageorge's said he had heard rumors the two hikers had been using drugs before getting lost in the canyon, but it did not discourage him from joining the search.
“I would go out and do it again," he said, adding, “I'm not angry... We all make mistakes.”
At issue now legally is whether Cendoya would ever have to pay any compensation to Papgeorge’s.
Cendoya is eligible for a drug diversion program, and if he is accepted and completes the requirements, he will not have a conviction his record, preventing Papageorge's from seeking compensation, according to Spitzer and Deputy District Attorney Brock Zimmon.
Spitzer said he will argue that the state law preventing compensation to Papgeorge's if Cendoya completes the drug diversion program is “unconstitutional” under Marsy's Law.
Orange County officials estimate it cost more than $160,000 to rescue Cendoya and Jack, but they cannot seek compensation either because a law that would have allowed that expired in 1999. Orange County supervisors on Tuesday approved a draft of a bill that they asked Assemblyman Don Wagner, R-Tustin, to
Sheriff's deputies searching for Cendoya allegedly found 497 milligrams of methamphetamine in the car that he drove up to the mountain. He was charged April 30 with a felony count of possession of a controlled substance.
Cendoya and Jack went missing on Easter Sunday night when they became lost while hiking. Cendoya was rescued late April 3, and Jack was found the next morning. Both were found dehydrated, hallucinating and delirious.
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