With a judge questioning the defendant's mental competency, criminal proceedings were suspended Friday and a pair of psychiatric evaluations were ordered for the man accused of setting the nearly 23,000-acre Holy Fire that spans Orange and Riverside counties.
Forrest Gordon Clark, 51, repeatedly disrupted his scheduled arraignment hearing Friday. When Orange County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Menninger tried to call the case to order, Clark blurted out that he was innocent, and at one point questioned if the judge knew what she was doing.
Menninger expressed doubts about Clark's mental competency and asked to meet privately with attorneys. Clark continued to speak out, suggesting that he was transmitting "live energy.'' He also made repeated comments about a tie being worn by an attorney in the courtroom.
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After meeting with attorneys, Menninger suspended the criminal case against Clark, and ordered that he remain jailed without bail. Clark will undergo mental evaluations by doctors chosen by the prosecution and the defense, and those reports will be presented to the court in a hearing set for Oct. 10.
Clark is charged with aggravated arson damaging at least five inhabited structures, arson of inhabited property, arson of forest and criminal threats, all felonies, as well as two misdemeanor counts of resisting arrest.
Authorities have not offered specifics on what led them to Clark as an arson suspect. Orange County Fire Authority Battalion Chief Shane Sherwood said the fire began "around and near'' Clark's cabin in Holy Jim Canyon. He said witness statements and "physical findings'' at the scene led to the belief Clark set the massive blaze.
Clark's cabin is believed to be the only one of more than a dozen in the area that was not damaged in the fire.
Volunteer Fire Chief Mike Milligan, who also has a cabin in the Holy Jim Canyon area, told the Orange County Register Clark has long feuded with a neighbor and other cabin owners. He ran through the area recently screaming, and sent Milligan a message warning that "this place will burn,'' Milligan said.
Clark spoke to a videographer from OnScene outside his Holy Jim Canyon prior to his arrest, insisting he had nothing to do with the fire.
"I have no idea,'' Clark said during the rambling interview when asked if he knew what sparked the fire. "I was asleep. I had two earplugs in.''
He added: "I woke up and my stuff was all on fire,'' he said.
He claimed during the interview that he was the target of threats from the MS-13 gang.
During an animated court appearance last week, Clark labeled the arson charges against him a "lie'' and insisted again that he was being threatened by gang members. When a court commissioner ordered his bail to remain at $1 million, Clark said he could easily afford it and asked whether he could pay it right away.
Clark could face 10 years to life in prison.
Orange County sheriff's deputies have had multiple encounters with Clark dating back to 2006, according to Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the department.
When called to his cabin Aug. 2 they couldn't find him, Braun said.
On July 23, a family member called deputies for help saying he was acting erratically, Braun said.
Clark was placed on what's known as a "5150 hold,'' meaning he was placed in custody for 72 hours to evaluate his mental health, but social workers deemed him eligible to release three days later, Braun said.
The Holy Fire, which has burned nearly 23,000 acres, erupted Aug. 6, burning in the Orange County portion of the Cleveland National Forest before spreading into Riverside County, where it moved down hillsides toward Lake Elsinore, forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents.
"Every time deputies responded or interacted with Mr. Clark, which is numerous times over the years, they have responded appropriately while also respecting his constitutional rights,'' Braun said. "You can't predictively place someone under arrest for something they haven't yet done.''