Dump truck driver accused of starting deadly fire arraigned

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Riverside County

CNS | Contributed

A 39-year-old dump truck driver accused of causing a deadly 1,000-acre blaze in Calimesa by intentionally dropping flaming debris from his rig in the middle of a windstorm pleaded not guilty Tuesday to felony charges.

Antonio Ornelas Velazquez of Desert Hot Springs was charged last year with two counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of bur`ning an inhabited structure, with sentence-enhancing great bodily injury allegations, for the October 2019 blaze.

The defendant was arraigned before Riverside County Superior Court Judge Mark Singerton, who scheduled a felony settlement conference for Aug. 15 at the Banning Justice Center.

Velazquez is free on a $75,000 bond.

The defendant was arrested in February 2021 following a 14-month investigation by Cal Fire peace officers and Riverside County sheriff’s detectives.

“The Sandalwood Fire was caused by a burning load of trash that was dumped next to dry vegetation by the trash truck that Velazquez was operating,” according to a Cal Fire statement released at the time.

At about 2 p.m. on Oct. 10, 2019, the defendant noticed smoke rising from the scoop of the CR&R truck he was driving on Sandalwood Drive, near Seventh Street, prosecutors said.

Against the advice of a motorist and another truck driver who pulled up behind him and warned of the dangers of allowing burning material into the open amid high winds, Velazquez “dumped the burning load onto the ground” directly adjacent to brush along the roadway, according to the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office.

Santa Ana winds gusting to 40 mph quickly pushed the flames into the Villa Calimesa Mobile Home Park.

Hannah Labelle, 61, and Lois Arvikson, 89, were killed as the flames swept over their properties, leaving them no time to escape.

Seventy-two structures were completely destroyed, and another 16 damaged, according to investigators. The blaze charred a total of 1,011 acres before it was stopped just inside San Bernardino County four days later.

Lawsuits were filed against CR&R weeks afterward and are pending.

Velazquez has no documented prior felony convictions in Riverside County.

SIDE BAR:

TITLE: What You Need To Know

INFO:

• Antonio Ornelas Velazquez was charged last year with two counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of burning an inhabited structure, with sentence-enhancing great bodily injury allegations.

Antonio Ornelas Velazquez. | Contributed Photo

• Velazquez is acused of causing a deadly 1,000-acre blaze in Calimesa by intentionally dropping flaming debris from his rig in the middle of a windstorm.

• The blaze charred a total of 1,011 acres before it was stopped just inside San Bernardino County four days later.

• He was arrested in February 2021 following a 14-month investigation by Cal Fire peace officers and Riverside County sheriff’s detectives.

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