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An update from the courtroom during the trial of the alleged Dolan Fire arsonist.

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Ivan Geronimo Gomez

Ivan Geronimo Gomez, 31, faces 15 felony counts, 13 of which are for his alleged role in starting the August 2020 Dolan Fire.

Christopher Neely here, wondering what it must be like to sit in a courtroom and listen to people speaking a different language debate your mental ability, debate whether you are able to understand what’s going on, whether your brain is fried from drug use or whether your lack of formal education allows you to understand anything beyond a surface level. 

Ivan Geronimo Gomez, 31, the man on trial for allegedly starting Big Sur’s Dolan Fire in August 2020, spent the first two days of this week doing just that, listening to a live Spanish translation of attorneys, a judge and witnesses debate whether he lives in “reality.” Since Gomez will not be taking the witness stand, we may never know for sure what or whether he is able to understand. Yet, if he is able, he likely knows that the judge’s conclusion on this question weighs heavily in how much time he will spend in jail. 

That’s because, as I’ve learned through sitting in on each day of the trial, the arson case against Gomez hangs on a statement he gave to state park rangers the night the Dolan Fire began. After rangers picked him up along Highway 1 for allegedly throwing rocks at cars, he told rangers he started the fire and that he worked on a marijuana grow deep in the Los Padres National Forest. He was found shirtless and sweating, with disposable lighters and a screwdriver in his pocket. 

Federal fire investigators testified that the Dolan Fire was unusual in that it had already spread “hundreds of acres” by the time it was reported (the fire would go on to burn roughly 125,000 acres and destroy 20 structures). They were able to narrow down the ignition site to a 1.5-acre area—exceptionally large in the fire investigation trade—on the east side of a ridge near Lime Creek, in the heart of an illegal marijuana grow. Using Gomez’s statement as a critical piece of evidence, as well as campfire rings and propane tanks for cooking found at the grow, federal fire investigators said they determined arson was the “probable” cause. 

However, Matt Swanson, one of those federal investigators, told the court that independent of Gomez’s statement, there was no conclusive evidence in the 1.5-acre area that told investigators the cause was arson, or that Gomez was responsible. In his statement, Gomez was right about the marijuana grow, and witnesses told the court that Gomez’s estimate of how many plants were at the site was also accurate, which gave credence to his confession about starting the fire. 

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Yet Gomez made a lot of other statements that night, and in subsequent interviews with detectives, that officials weren’t able to corroborate. He said he started the fire to kill five coworkers he said were rats; he said he started the fire to create smoke and get rid of spiders; he said he was being chased by five Black men with AIDS who wanted to rape him; he said wanted to turn rocks into gold, that he was an investigator as well and that he killed up to 1,700 people. He also said he did not start the fire. (Gomez was deemed competent to stand trial by a court psychologist.) 

His defense team, led by public defender Michael Belter, is arguing that Gomez’s brain is fried from use of methamphetamine, and that he was high on meth the night he was picked up by park rangers. Thus, they said, none of what he said can be trusted, including his confession. In a moment that evinces the obstacles of the language barrier, the defense proffered one of his statements, that his best friend is a monkey, as a clear indication of his mental decline. On April 5, USFS investigator Cooper Fouch argued that he understood Gomez as saying his best friend was Monkey, as in, Monkey is the nickname of his best friend at the cannabis grow. “That is very common, a lot of times, they won’t even know the full names of the people they’re working with,” Fouch said, relying on his experience dealing with illegal cannabis grow operations. “They will just know each other by nickname.” 

The sides will meet one more time in front of Judge Pamela Butler on Thursday, April 7 for closing arguments and a possible verdict, but Deputy District Attorney Meredith Sillman tells me it’s possible that Judge Butler issues a verdict by writing after she has had time to sit with the evidence and arguments. Gomez is charged with 16 felony counts: three arson charges, one for throwing rocks at cars, another for illegal cannabis cultivation, and 11 charges of animal cruelty for the California condors that died in the blaze.

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Christopher Neely covers a mixed beat that includes the environment, water politics, and Monterey County's Board of Supervisors. He began at the Weekly in 2021 after five years on the City Hall beat in Austin, TX.

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