Criminal arson charges are being sought by Murrieta police against three Thompson Middle School students for their alleged involvement in two fires set near campus.
Both fires occurred on Oct. 4 in a dry creekbed area just west of the intersection of Hayes Avenue and Nighthawk Way.
The first one broke out at about 8:30 a.m. just before school was set to begin for the day; the second was reported at about 3:30 p.m., after the school day had ended.
Although the fires were during a Santa Ana wind event, Murrieta firefighters were able to quickly contain the flames. The morning fire was mapped at less than a quarter of an acre. However, the afternoon blaze threatened to ignite some Willow trees and had the potential to spread embers to nearby homes before it was contained at about a half of an acre.
That same day, Murrieta fire Battalion Chief Pat Jennings had confirmed that Murrieta police were investigating whether the fires may have been sparked by youth seen loitering in the area.
Murrieta police Sgt. Robert Anderson, who oversees the department’s juvenile division, confirmed Thursday that the investigation took about a week.
After interviewing witnesses, the suspects and their families, Anderson said the department is seeking arson charges against two 13-year-olds and a 12-year-old.
“They all go to school at Thompson, two live in Murrieta and one in Temecula,” Anderson said. “We are sending the case over to the Juvenile District Attorney to file a complaint against the kids.”
Evidence, Anderson said, includes a lighter allegedly found hidden nearby.
It is believed the suspects—their names were not provided because of their ages—lit pieces of paper and other objects on fire and left them there to burn.
“Just by leaving it there, it would be considered arson,” Anderson said. “An arson is a fire that is intentionally set to destroy property.”
The Riverside County District Attorney's Office will ultimately decide whether to file criminal charges.
The Murrieta Valley Unified School District is also addressing the incidents although they did not take place on school grounds, District Spokeswoman Karen Parris said.
“Appropriate disciplinary action is being taken,” Parris said, noting she could not comment further due to confidentiality rules.
The students do not have any prior criminal records, and were not booked into Juvenile Hall due to the amount of time that elapsed between the fires and the completion of the investigation, according to Anderson.
The sergeant acknowledged nearby residents’ concerns and said the school resource officers for Thompson Middle School and Murrieta Valley High School are patrolling that open space area daily for any further suspicious activity, as are regular patrol officers.
He encouraged residents not to hesitate in contacting the department if they witness any criminal activity.
“We only know when they tell us, so I encourage people to let us know when they see something that is happening or suspect something is happening,” Anderson said.