Mother of Tea Fire victim asks judge for harsher punishment

Rhys Alvarado

Two of the 10 individuals charged with trespassing onto the Tea Gardens property changed their not-guilty pleas to no-contest Tuesday at Figueroa Superior Court.

Hashim Ali Hassan and Mohammad Alessam were sentenced to two years of unsupervised probation, 75 hours of community service, and given $550 fines. A second charge of starting a campfire without a permit was dropped.

Alessam currently resides in Kuwait, where he will serve his probation and perform his community service.

“My clients just wanted to get this behind them,” said Adam Pearlman, who represented both Hassan and Alessam.

The eight remaining defendants were granted an extension until May 5 to settle their cases.

It was initially believed that the defendants were responsible for starting the Tea Fire which destroyed 210 homes in its path. However, a three-month investigation concluded on Feb. 13 by the District Attorney’s office could not prove that the defendants were responsible for the blaze.

Tuesday’s hearing was attended by Blanca Benedict Flore, mother of Tea Fire victim Carla Hoffman, and mother-in-law of Lance Hoffman. Flore spoke at the hearing and asked Superior Court Judge Clifford Anderson to impose the maximum penalties on the 10 defendants.

Local law firm Cappello & NoÃl has agreed to represent Flore. Cappello & NoÃl are now investigating the circumstances surrounding the Tea Fire and whether the 10 can be held responsible for the blaze.

“I just ask that the judge understand me,” Flore said. “I was hoping that the DA would bring this to trial and that they wouldn’t just get a slap on the wrist.”

Flore cried as she told Anderson about the severe physical and mental damages her loved ones have suffered.

“My precious daughter and son almost died, they will have countless years of rehabilitation,” Flore said. “Sometimes she wakes up in the middle of the night running out of the house cause she thinks it’s on fire.”

Flore also said that she was disappointed with the defendants during the first March 2 arraignment, because the 10 were playing with their cell phones while court was in session, and – in her opinion – not taking the matter seriously.

“The bailiff had to warn them multiple times,” Flore said, about their conduct in court.

The names of the eight remaining defendants are Fahad Al-Fadhel, Hope Sjohnet Dunlap, Casey James Lamonte, Natalie Rose Maese, Carver William McLellan, Stephen Reid, Joshua Grant Decker Trinidad and Lauren Elizabeth Vazquez.

Hope Sjohnet Dunlap is a former member of The Channels from Fall 2008. Nine of the 10 charged were enrolled at City College last fall.

The next hearing is scheduled at 8:30 a.m. May 5, in Department 10 of the Figueroa Superior Court Division in Santa Barbara.