Former student who helped start fire at SLO High's computer lab sentenced to jail

Michael Benadiba, left, one of three teens (at the time) charged in the aftermath of an arson fire at the San Luis Obispo High School computer lab in December 2016, was sentenced to serve a year in San Luis Obispo County Jail on June 14, 2018. He is pictured with attorney Earl Conaway III.
Michael Benadiba, left, one of three teens (at the time) charged in the aftermath of an arson fire at the San Luis Obispo High School computer lab in December 2016, was sentenced to serve a year in San Luis Obispo County Jail on June 14, 2018. He is pictured with attorney Earl Conaway III.

One of three young men convicted of starting a fire that destroyed San Luis Obispo High School's computer lab in 2016 was sentenced Thursday to just less than a year in County Jail, as officials prepare to recover from the trio some of the roughly $1.8 million in damage.

Michael Giovanni Benadiba pleaded no contest May 17 to felony charges of recklessly causing a structure fire and second-degree commercial burglary. Charges of arson and conspiracy were dismissed as a result of his pre-trial plea agreement with the District Attorney's Office.

Benadiba, 20, was sentenced Thursday to five years of formal probation and 364 days in the County Jail. Given time served and other credits, he will likely serve less than five months.

The school district previously said the fire caused roughly $1.8 million in damage. Benadiba is being held jointly and severally liable for restitution with former co-defendants Cameron Ross Bratcher and Jacob Lee Ruth, and a hearing to determine a final amount is scheduled for Sept. 13.

Under the terms of his agreement, Benadiba is eligible to apply to have his convictions reduced to misdemeanors in three years. If he violates his probation, however, Benadiba could face up to three years in state prison.

Like his former co-defendants, Benadiba had attended San Luis Obispo High School prior to the fire; unlike the others, he transferred to Pacific Beach High School during his senior year.

SLO High Fire Suspects Trio
Michael Benadiba, left, and Cameron Bratcher, middle, and Jacob Ruth. San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office

Fire crews responded to San Luis Obispo High School at about 1:20 a.m. on Dec. 8, 2016, to find the computer lab 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 Ruth, Bratcher and Benadiba in their car and searched the vehicle, finding an unused road flare and a partially burnt flare of the same brand outside the car nearby, according to court records.

According to a report by an investigator in the case, Benadiba confessed to detectives shortly after being detained that all three men were responsible for the fire. Benadiba allegedly allowed detectives to search his cellphone, in which officers found video evidence.

At his sentencing hearing Thursday, Benadiba's attorney, Earl Conaway III, noted to Superior Court Judge Jacquelyn Duffy that Benadiba was still a teen at the time of the crime and that he "sincerely regrets" his involvement in the incident.

He cited a report by the San Luis Obispo County Probation Department, which he said states that Benadiba was assessed as having a low risk of re-offending. Furthermore, Conaway said, Benadiba faces years of repaying a yet-to-be-determined amount of restitution and up to three years in state prison if he doesn't abide by his probation terms.

"Mr. Benadiba knows he has a lot riding on this," Conaway said.

Deputy District Attorney Lindsey Bittner told Duffy that Conaway's assessment of Benadiba's potential for rehabilitation was "fair and well-taken."

Bittner said she spoke with San Luis Obispo High School Principal Leslie O'Connor and a teacher in charge of the school's robotics program prior to the hearing. Bittner said that while the instructor described the crimes as "reckless," "dangerous" and "mischievous," she didn't believe Benadiba to be "malicious."

When asked by Duffy if he wanted to make a statement, Benadiba replied: "No, thank you, your honor."

SLOHS fire110740
San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Jacquelyn Duffy warns Michael Benadiba at his June 14 sentencing to keep his nose clean. David Middlecamp

Duffy additionally ordered Benadiba to have no contact with Ruth or Bratcher after reading the sentence. Citing a reference to alcohol use in the probation department report, Duffy reminded Benadiba that's he's required to refrain from consuming alcohol or being in any place where alcohol is primarily served.

"You really have two paths you can go on," Duffy told Benadiba. "I encourage you to choose the right one."

O'Connor did not attend the hearing and could not immediately be reached for comment about the case or the state of the computer lab Thursday.

Benadiba's was the last of the three defendants' cases to come to some sort of resolution.

During Ruth’s trial, which began Aug. 4, 2017, he was found guilty of two felony charges of burglary and one count of arson stemming from the burning of a portable toilet on the school campus a night before the computer lab fire. However, the jury split 11-1 on a second arson count stemming from the computer lab fire. He had faced up to eight years in state prison if convicted on all four counts.

The District Attorney's Office has filed paperwork to retry Ruth on the hung arson count, currently scheduled for August.

Though Bratcher initially faced felony charges of arson, conspiracy and being an accessory to a felony, he too accepted an agreement in December 2017, pleading no contest to the felony accessory charge in exchange for the others being dismissed. A sentencing hearing has yet to be scheduled.

Benadiba is scheduled to begin serving his sentence July 27.

Matt Fountain 781-7909, @mattfountain1
Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune