Police: 3 former SLO High students who set fire to computer lab were angry with teacher

Three suspects accused of setting a San Luis Obispo High School computer lab on fire and causing an estimated $750,000 in damage early Thursday were disgruntled former students looking to get back at a teacher, according to San Luis Obispo police.

At 12:24 a.m., alarms alerted emergency personnel to the blaze that badly damaged the lab, according to a San Luis Obispo Police Department news release.

San Luis Obispo Fire Department crews arrived to find the room fully engulfed in flames. Firefighters were able to save the building and prevent flames from spreading to other structures, but the contents of the lab were a total loss.

While crews were working to put out the fire, a resident called to report a suspicious vehicle with three occupants on Alta Street. The caller had seen three men park the car and jump over a fence leading toward the high school campus prior to the fire.

Officers found Jacob Ruth, 19, and Cameron Bratcher and Michael Benadiba, both 18, as they were returning to their car. The three were detained and arrested on suspicion of arson, burglary and vandalism. The men were booked into County Jail in lieu of $25,000 bail. On Thursday evening, only Ruth remained in jail.

San Luis Obispo High School Principal Leslie O’Connor said the three men were all former students of the school. Ruth graduated, and Bratcher withdrew from the school in 2015. Benadiba transferred to Pacific Beach High School before moving on to an adult school.

The men were unhappy with an unnamed teacher from their time as students, San Luis Obispo police Sgt. Chad Pfarr said, and that is thought to have motivated them to burn the computer lab. The suspects allegedly broke into the lab through a window and used road flares to start the fire, Pfarr said.

Seventeen tablets also were taken from the computer lab late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning, and police are still investigating to determine if the fire suspects were involved in that burglary, Pfarr said.

O’Connor described the burned classroom — which housed the lab, computer science and repair classes, and the high school’s robotics club — as a “very well-used space on campus.”

“It’s completely gutted,” he said.

Because of safety concerns, no classes are being held in the Career Technical Education building where the fire broke out or in nearby portable buildings, O’Connor said. He said the fire did not spread to adjoining classrooms, though smoke damaged equipment in two nearby rooms. Staff members are working to salvage items.

Computer science teacher Jan Fetcho said the robotics club lost $30,000 to $40,000 worth of equipment, including six robots and all of their extra parts, in the fire. It took years for students to accumulate all of the parts, she said.

“The things that the kids raised money to buy are gone,” Fetcho said.

Club members planned to take some of their creations to a competition Saturday in Modesto, but now can no longer participate, she said. Atascadero High School’s robotics team, the Greybots, have offered to lend the club parts, so members can still potentially compete at January meets in Bakersfield and at Cal Poly, Fetcho said.

Anthony Palazzo, San Luis Coastal Unified School District’s facilities manager, estimated the building sustained at least $500,000 in damage and the equipment and supplies lost were worth about $250,000.

The school will be in contact with insurance adjusters to assess the damage and plan for repairs, O’Connor said.

“We’re trying to minimize the impacts on staff and students,” he said.

The fire remains under investigation. Anyone with information about the incident is encouraged to call the Police Department at 805-781-7312 or Crime Stoppers at 805-549-7867.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27