Bail raised for suspects in SLO High fire as damage tops $1.8 million

Michael Benadiba, left, and Cameron Bratcher, middle, and Jacob Ruth.
Michael Benadiba, left, and Cameron Bratcher, middle, and Jacob Ruth.

As costs to replace the scorched San Luis Obispo High School computer lab surpass $1.8 million, two of three former students suspected of intentionally starting the fire that destroyed it were taken back into custody Tuesday after a judge increased their bail.

Cameron Bratcher and Michael Benadiba, both 18, were each previously facing a single charge of arson for the Dec. 8 fire before prosecutors filed an additional charge Tuesday and a judge increased their bail from $25,000 to $100,000. Both pleaded not guilty to that additional charge.

Jacob Ruth, 19, faced that arson charge plus three other arson and burglary charges for separate incidents at the school in the weeks preceding the computer lab fire — incidents that are explained in court documents released Tuesday.

All three defendants initially posted $25,000 bail following their first arrest Dec. 8. San Luis Obispo police rearrested them on suspicion of an additional arson charge, but the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office only filed additional charges against Ruth, who has been in custody since his arrest on a total $500,000 bail.

According to a court declaration filed last week by District Attorney Investigator Hank Abbas, at about 1:20 a.m. Dec. 8, fire crews responded to San Luis Obispo High School and found the computer lab building in flames. A witness reported seeing a suspicious Ford Fusion sedan occupied by three people in the area while firefighters battled the blaze.

Officers contacted the occupants — identified as Ruth, Bratcher and Benadiba — and searched the vehicle after Ruth, the owner, allegedly consented. They found an unused road flare with a stick affixed to it and a partially burnt flare of the same brand outside the car nearby, Abbas wrote in the declaration.

According to the report, Benadiba confessed to detectives that all three men were responsible for the fire. Benadiba allegedly allowed detectives to search his cellphone, in which officers found a video of a gloved hand pulling a fire alarm. The time stamp showed the video was taken at 10:15 p.m. Dec 6 — the same night the school had recorded a fire alarm activation, the report states.

After the three were arrested Dec. 8, detectives began investigating their possible relation to other incidents involving fires, burglaries and tampering with fire safety equipment that had occurred in San Luis Obispo schools in the previous weeks. According to the report, those incidents include a burglary at the high school’s computer lab sometime during the night of Dec. 5, and the fire alarm activation Dec. 6.

The report states that fire suppression equipment was also destroyed at Pacheco School and the San Luis Obispo Classical Academy on Oct. 13, and heat-sensitive glass was removed from a fire sprinkler at Laguna Middle School, though the report does not say whether investigators believe the three men were involved in those incidents.

The reports also reveal that damage to San Luis Obispo High School is now believed to exceed $1.8 million.

An estimate attached to a Dec. 22 report by San Luis Obispo Police Detective Eric Vitale totals the computer lab damage as high as $1.35 million — what San Luis Coastal Unified School District Assistant Superintendent Ryan Pinkerton called “conservative estimates” — based on cleanup costs, rebuilding of the classrooms, new furniture, and computers and other equipment.

That estimate does not factor in costs associated with temporary placement for students, loss of the computer lab and wood shop curriculum and replacement for damaged materials in the adjoining wood shop building. The report lists between $250,000 and $500,000 in damage to the wood shop.

On Tuesday, a judge accepted the DA’s Office request to increase Benadiba and Bratcher’s bail, which is now $100,000 each.

As of Tuesday evening, only Ruth remained in jail.

All three are due back in court Jan. 5.

Matt Fountain: 805-781-7909, @MattFountain1

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