A CAL FIRE air tanker drops fire retardant on the Mountain Fire. Photo by J.P. Crumrine

A self-representing Mountain Fire victim unraveled the $30-million federal case and put the state’s $5-million findings into question. Lawrence Goda, a homeowner-plaintiff in the state-court action that settled last year for nearly $5 million to Cal Fire, and other plaintiffs, confirmed James Nowlin’s information reported in the Town Crier’s Aug. 1 issue regarding the two U.S. Forest Service (USFS) firefighters’ eyewitness account of the 2013 Mountain Fire’s origin.

Goda, who is not an attorney, acted as his own lawyer and did his own investigating during the state-court lawsuit in which he was a plaintiff. He told the Town Crier in a phone interview that about a year ago he interviewed many USFS personnel at various levels, including the two USFS firefighters who were first on the fire scene.

Contrary to what was reported by the Los Angeles Times, Goda said the two USFS firefighters did not tell him that the fire began on a property separate from Al-Shawaf’s Mountain Center property, but that the fire originated a couple hundred feet away from Al-Shawaf’s junction box, which would still be on Al-Shawaf’s property. Goda said the firefighters told him the wind on the fire as it started was constantly changing, blowing the fire around in all directions. Goda interviewed another USFS firefighter who described it as “a fire from hell.”

In the Aug. 1 issue of the Town Crier, Nowlin, a defendant with his then-wife Donna, and Dr. Tarek M. Al-Shawaf in the 2013 Mountain Fire lawsuits, informed the Town Crier in an interview that two USFS firefighters, who were the first on the fire scene, said that the fire did not start as Cal Fire’s official investigation claimed, but that the fire’s point of origin was really many yards away from the electrical junction box that Cal Fire named as the fire’s origin in its investigative report. 

In the Town Crier story, Nowlin (who is employed by Al-Shawaf) said he believed this to be the “new evidence” the DOJ/U.S. Attorney’s office had cited to the Town Crier as the reason for dismissing the nearly $25-million federal lawsuit against the Nowlins and Al-Shawaf. 

In communications with the Town Crier, the U.S. Attorney’s office still refuses to identify or comment on this “new evidence.”

The same two USFS firefighters Nowlin told the Town Crier about told Goda that they were soon to be interviewed by investigators from the U.S. Attorney’s office, among others.

Consequently, Goda said that by the time the state-court case had progressed to the settlement stage near the end of 2018, he assumed that all parties’ attorneys and investigators knew that the two USFS firefighters’ eyewitness account contradicted Cal Fire’s investigation report as to the fire’s origin.

Goda had not previously mentioned the USFS firefighters’ conflicting eyewitness account to anyone because, not being a lawyer himself, didn’t realize it was crucial. He figured the attorneys involved already knew about the two firefighters’ statements and had already factored that information into their handling of the case.

Goda and his wife were surprised at a February 2019 breakfast at The Mission Inn in Riverside with Al-Shawaf’s attorney James Lance, when Lance revealed then and there that he was learning of the two USFS firefighters’ eyewitness account for the first time. 

This “new evidence,” once it became known by defense counsel, resulted in the complete dismissal of the federal action against the defendants.

Some previously raised questions are now put to rest. We now know from two sources the “new evidence” that resulted in the dismissal of the federal-court lawsuit. At this time, there is now no basis for suspecting that Al-Shawaf’s high-standing in Saudi Arabia may have had anything to do with the dismissal of this case.

However, some questions persist and are joined by a raft of new ones:

Did the two USFS firefighters, who were first on the scene, tell Cal Fire and the U.S. Attorney’s investigators what they knew about the start of the fire? If not, why not? Goda related that one of the two USFS firefighters told him that at the scene he approached Cal Fire investigators and offered to tell them about the early fire location, but was rebuffed by an investigator who indicated that it was their investigation and they could handle it.

Does Cal Fire continue to stand by its official report? Did Cal Fire and the other private-party plaintiffs know about the two USFS firefighters’ eyewitness account at the time they negotiated the nearly $5-million settlement of their state-court lawsuit last year? 

For some reason, like Lance, the U.S. Attorney’s office apparently did not know about the two USFS firefighters’ eyewitness account until recently — or if they did, they didn’t disclose it. If U.S. Attorney’s office investigators did interview the two USFS firefighters a year ago, did they convey that information to the attorneys in the U.S. Attorney’s office after the interview? Why is this evidence “new” to the U.S. Attorney’s office?

When and how did the U.S. Attorney’s office first learn of the two USFS firefighters’ information? Was it really “new” to them, or were they just sitting on it, hoping that defense counsel would not learn of it? If the U.S. Attorney’s office knew about the two USFS firefighters, why did their statements not come out in discovery?

Perhaps most importantly: Why have our government agencies been keeping this “new evidence” from the public even while the United States dismissed its nearly $25-million lawsuit because of it?

The Town Crier expects to learn more regarding this matter.