Crime

SLO High grad avoids second trial, pleads no contest in computer lab arson case

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.

One of three young men blamed for a fire that gutted San Luis Obispo High School’s computer lab in 2016 who was set to be tried for a second time next month will likely avoid serving any more jail time.

Jacob Lee Ruth, 21, pleaded no contest to a felony charge of arson of a structure, a charge that a jury failed to agree on in August 2017. He was scheduled to go to trial again Aug. 13.

Assistant District Attorney Eric Dobroth said Friday that Ruth entered an open plea with the court July 11, pleading to the arson charge without any agreement on jail or prison time from the District Attorney’s Office. Dobroth said the judge indicated at the time she would approve a sentence of six years in state prison, a term that will be stayed pending Ruth’s successful completion of formal probation.

Ruth had already served several months in County Jail.

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A fire destroyed the computer lab at San Luis Obispo High School early Thursday morning (Dec. 9, 2016). Arson is the suspected cause, and three former students had been arrested. Here's a look at the damage.

He is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 6 in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.

Ruth and former co-defendants Michael Benadiba and Cameron Bratcher are alleged to have started the computer lab fire as some sort of prank in the early morning hours of Dec. 8, 2016. As firefighters attacked the blaze, a witness reported seeing a suspicious car parked nearby with three people inside watching the action.

Officers contacted the car’s occupants — Ruth, Bratcher and 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 court records.

All three 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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The school district previously said the fire caused roughly $1.8 million in damage, and officials are seeking that the three be held jointly and severally liable for the total restitution. A hearing to determine a final amount is scheduled for Sept. 13.

At the end of his first, two-week trial, a jury convicted Ruth of two charges of burglary and one count of arson stemming from the destruction of a portable toilet on campus. But a lone juror refused to convict Ruth of the arson charge related to the computer lab fire, causing a mistrial.

Ruth’s change in plea came shortly after his former co-defendant, Benadiba, pleaded no contest in May to felony charges of recklessly causing a structure fire and second-degree commercial burglary. In exchange for his plea, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office dismissed Benadiba’s other charges of arson and conspiracy.

Benadiba, 20, will serve roughly four months in County Jail and was in jail custody as of Friday, according to jail logs.

Bratcher, 20, accepted a plea agreement in December 2017, pleading no contest to a felony charge of being an accessory to a crime. A sentencing hearing has yet to be scheduled.

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

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the fact that Ruth served several months in County Jail since his arrest and that, as a result of his plea to felony arson, he will not likely serve additional time.

Matt Fountain 781-7909, @mattfountain1
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