Defendant torched toilet but not school, attorney says, as SLO High arson goes to jury

Jacob Lee Ruth and two others are accused of setting fire to San Luis Obispo High School’s computer lab in December 2016.
Jacob Lee Ruth and two others are accused of setting fire to San Luis Obispo High School’s computer lab in December 2016.

The fate of one of three former San Luis Obispo High School students suspected of burning down the school computer lab last December is now in the hands of a jury, after both sides delivered closing arguments Thursday afternoon.

Jacob Lee Ruth is charged with two counts of arson and two counts of burglary. The second arson charge relates to the destruction of a portable toilet two days prior, which Ruth admitted to in a police interview and which his attorney, Matthew Guerrero, conceded during trial. Guerrero argued in his remarks that while burning the portable toilet days was reckless, it was not “willful and malicious,” and he asked the jury to choose the lesser included offense on that count. Ruth faces up to eight years in prison if convicted of the charges.

As to whether Ruth, 20, was responsible, along with co-defendants Cameron Bratcher, whose age was not immediately available, and Michael Benadiba, 19, for the Dec. 8, 2016, fire that gutted the lab and caused an estimated $1.8 million in damage, Guerrero argued there was only one person to blame: Benadiba.

“He was the one who ignited the fire,” Guerrero said, adding that Benadiba chose to keep a flare suspected of starting the blaze as “a memento.”

Using Ruth’s statements in police interviews, Guerrero said his client went to the lab that night “to be an a--hole” and vandalize his former teacher’s desk, not to start a fire. Guerrero accused Deputy District Attorney Lindsey Bittner of “interjecting what (she) wants the facts to be.”

“It’s just argument, and the prosecution calling people liars,” Guerrero said, later adding, “We have to be careful we don’t substitute arguments for facts.”

Guerrero said Ruth had engaged in petty behavior, including the destruction of a portable toilet and a 3-D printer stolen from the school, but that the fire on the night of Dec. 8 “was out of the league of Jacob Ruth and Cameron Bratcher.”

In her rebuttal, Bittner said, “(Ruth’s) league is arson.”

The prosecutor accused Guerrero of resorting to scare tactics in an effort to muddy the question of Ruth’s guilt.

“Please don’t be scared. You’re all infinitely capable of this decision,” Bittner said.

She said that whether Ruth was “the principal” who started the fire or “an aider or abetter” who stood by while another did so, he was guilty of arson regardless.

Bittner called on the jury to remember that Ruth has a history of starting fires, such as the destroyed portable toilet, while Benadiba was not known to have started “any other fires. Ever.”

Thursday’s arguments brought an end to a nearly weeklong trial that saw testimony from high school janitors, Ruth’s former teacher, police officers and a fire marshal.

Both Benadiba and Bratcher were called to the stand to testify. Both men, awaiting their own trial on the matter, invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to avoid doing so.

The trial also saw Judge Jacquelyn Duffy warn Kevin Bratcher, a relative of Cameron Bratcher, against contacting members of the jury after the court was informed by a juror that Kevin Bratcher attempted to do so.

The jury was sent home at 4:40 p.m. on Thursday, and is expected to resume deliberations on Friday.

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7929, @andrewsheeler

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