Crime

SLO High grad avoids arson conviction in computer lab fire — by 1 vote

Jacob Lee Ruth, 21, who was convicted last month of starting a fire that caused an estimated $1.8 million in damage to San Luis Obispo High School’s computer lab in 2016, was sentenced in court Monday.
Jacob Lee Ruth, 21, who was convicted last month of starting a fire that caused an estimated $1.8 million in damage to San Luis Obispo High School’s computer lab in 2016, was sentenced in court Monday.

Jurors on Monday found a San Luis Obispo High School graduate guilty of destroying a portable toilet at the school in December, but a lone juror refused to convict him of causing a fire that destroyed the school’s computer lab in December.

Jacob Lee Ruth, 20, was found guilty of two charges of burglary and one count of arson. The jury split 11-1 on a second arson count stemming from the computer lab fire that caused about $1.8 million in damage. He faces four years and four months on the three guilty charges. He had faced up to eight years in state prison if convicted on all four counts.

The case will go back to court Aug. 23 to determine whether prosecutors will seek a second trial. Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham said Monday that his office will consider whether to re-file the arson charge between now and that hearing. Cunningham said it’s unclear whether his office will pursue a County Jail or state prison sentence in the guilty verdicts.

“Mistrials, declared in the event of ‘hung juries,’ are a source of frustration for everyone, although we sincerely appreciate the diligent work of the jury in analyzing the evidence, applying the law, and convicting Mr. Ruth of the other three counts,” Cunningham said.

Matthew Guerrero, Ruth’s defense attorney, declined to comment on the case Monday due to the possibility that it could go back before a jury.

Before accepting the verdicts, Superior Court Judge Jacquelyn Duffy asked the jury foreman about a note he sent to her at about 11 a.m. Monday saying that the jury was split 11-1 on the second arson count and had been since deliberations began Friday. Duffy asked the jurors to try to work it out before accepting the impasse at about 3 p.m.

Neither the foreman nor the other jurors raised their hands when Duffy asked if anyone believed further deliberations would result in unanimous agreement.

According to court documents, fire crews responded to San Luis Obispo High School at about 1:20 a.m. on Dec. 8 to find the computer lab building engulfed in flames. A witness reported seeing a suspicious car nearby that was occupied by three people watching while firefighters battled the blaze.

Officers contacted the occupants — Ruth, Cameron Bratcher and Michael Benadiba — and searched the vehicle, finding an unused road flare and a partially burnt flare of the same brand outside the car nearby, according to a court declaration.

Bratcher, 18, and Benadiba, 19, are facing similar arson and burglary charges and are scheduled for trial-setting conferences in October.

During Ruth’s trial, which began Aug. 4 after three days of jury selection, Guerrero argued to jurors that Ruth had come to the lab with the others to vandalize a teacher’s desk, not start a fire. Guerrero said it was Benadiba who lit the flare that started the fire.

Bittner, however, argued that Ruth had a history of starting fires — including the destruction of a portable toilet days before the computer lab fire — and was guilty of arson whether he started or abetted the computer lab fire.

All three men are former students at the school; Ruth graduated and Bratcher withdrew in 2015, while Benadiba transferred to Pacific Beach High School.

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