Was Jacob Ruth an active participant in the Dec. 8, 2016, fire that gutted the San Luis Obispo High School computer lab, or was he in the wrong place at the wrong time when co-defendant Michael Benadiba allegedly lit the road flare that started the blaze?
That was the question put to jurors Friday when both San Luis Obispo County Deputy District Attorney Lindsey Bittner and defense counsel Matthew Guerrero presented their opening arguments after three-and-a-half days of jury selection.
Ruth, Benadiba and Cameron Bratcher all are alleged to have taken part in the arson that caused $1.8 million in damage to the lab and its contents. All three men are former students at the school; Ruth graduated and Bratcher withdrew in 2015, while Benadiba transferred to Pacific Beach High School.
Bratcher and Benadiba, who are being tried separately from Ruth, have trial setting conferences set for Oct. 3.
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In opening remarks, Bittner said she anticipates that Ruth’s defense will try to “point the finger” at his co-defendants but that he is accountable for his own actions that night.
“When you choose the behavior, you choose the consequence,” she said.
Bittner said the fire was the last incident in a series of escalating crimes committed by Ruth, Bratcher and Benadiba, which she said also included the fiery destruction of a school portable toilet, the burglary of a school concession stand, the theft of 17 tablet devices and the theft and destruction of a 3-D printer.
“The evidence is going to show you these aren’t just stupid teenagers,” Bittner said, adding that Ruth had become “a menace, for lack of a better word” who was looking to settle the score with a teacher he didn’t like.
Bittner said Ruth, an employee of a local auto parts store, had access to road flares such as the one believed to have caused the Dec. 8 fire.
“The evidence will show that he has a fascination with fire,” Bittner said.
In his opening statement, Guerrero said that while Ruth doesn’t contest allegations of the destroyed portable toilet and the stolen and destroyed 3-D printer — neither Ruth nor Bratcher knew that Benadiba would ignite a flare and set fire to the lab.
“The reason we’re here is to determine what conduct and responsibility Jacob had on Dec. 8,” Guerrero said.
He said Ruth has consistently denied being the one to set the fire that night.
Guerrero said that while the jury “will hear a lot of talk about shenanigans,” Ruth was forthcoming about his guilt when interviewed by police. Guerrero said that without Ruth’s testimony, police wouldn’t have had a suspect for the destroyed 3-D printer and portable toilet.
Guerrero said he hopes jurors will focus on Ruth’s role on the night of the fire.
“Intent. Specific intent. Look for evidence of that,” Guerrero said.
The trial is scheduled to resume next week. Ruth remains in custody at San Luis Obispo County Jail, where he is being held on $500,000 bail.