A Christmas Miracle for White Trash Jesus?
‘Tis the season . . . for White Trash Jesus to pull a Christmas miracle? For the man who’s already performed such miracles as (allegedly) turning Holy Jim Canyon into a smouldering ash heap, as well as (certainly) turning his hair into a mullet, this miracle would be Forrest Gordon Clark’s crowning achievement. In fact, if what his Public Defender Nicole Parness said is true, Clark could forgo his crucifixion and skip straight to resurrection before Easter Sunday!
In case you haven’t heard, Parness delivered a plot twist to end all plot twists yesterday in court when she entered a not guilty plea for Clark, then revealed that an OC Fire Authority investigation has named Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Chief Mike Milligan as a “viable suspect.” Additionally, Parness requested that Clark’s bail be reset and he be released from custody, stating, “The [district attorney’s office] should have reasonable doubt about the other suspect, and because there’s another suspect, they should be investigating before arresting.”
Deputy District Attorney Jake Jondle retorted that Parness’ claims were based on speculation and without credible evidence, as well as that Clark’s behavior and other credible evidence justify his arrest.
Judge Nancy E. Zeltzer ruled in favor of the DA’s office, keeping Clark behind bars with his bail at $1 million and setting his pretrial hearing for Dec. 20.
To determine what all this means, we need to examine this saga from beginning to end.
Mike Milligan and Other Possible Stories
The simple, media-friendly story you’ve probably heard about the Holy Fire sounds like this: Clark was a violent, insane man who habitually threatened his neighbors in Holy Jim Canyon. But recently, Clark had become paranoid and was accusing neighbor Frank Romero of cooking meth in his cabin 15 on Trabuco Creek Road. Clark alerted authorities to his suspicions, but when his cries weren’t heard, he sent Milligan an email stating, “This place will burn!” Days later, Clark set fire to the outside of Romero’s cabin, and in doing so, kicked off the 23,000-acre brush fire.
As with any static story, this version of events lacks nuance and misses key evidence. Reporters responsible for pushing this line, myself included, did a disservice to the story, our sources and Clark by dictating Clark’s guilt in a court of public opinion. He appeared obviously guilty. For my part, I apologize.
“It’s Michael Milligan, the volunteer fire chief,” Parness told reporters after Clark’s Dec. 12 hearing. “He has been listed as a viable suspect, and it has been said that he had the motive and the opportunity. There’s a lot more coming out that I’m still looking into, and I want the truth. Not only is he a viable suspect, but [also], in my mind, he’s actually more likely to have been the one to do this.”
After digging into Milligan’s background, the Weekly found the volunteer fire chief may not be the Andy Griffith-esque small-town public servant he claims to be.
Among documents filed in the matter of Milligan’s divorce was a restraining order filed by his ex-wife, Kathleen Milligan Cannan, on Aug. 19, 1993. In it, she states, “On [July 11, 1993], my husband and I got into a heavy argument. He was yelling and screaming so much that my 14-year-old was very much afraid of him. He became so angry that he raised his fist and hit me in the face across the left side. Stunned, I took my foot and tried to push him away with it. He screamed, ‘In the last two days, you f***ed me over’ in front of the children.” Cannan then called the police, but the officer who arrived was a friend of Milligan’s.
According to Cannan, a subsequent police report was filed by an Officer Turner, but it disappeared.
In the wake of the disturbance, Milligan returned home. “My husband still convinces himself that this event never happened,” Cannan says in court documents. “He absolutely has no remorse regarding this incident.
“All throughout our marriage, he was quick to lose his temper and would yell and scream at anyone in sight,” she continues. “My husband continuously makes death threats to me and contends that ‘I will always be watching over [your] shoulder’ and says that ‘This is not a promise; this is a threat.’”
Milligan agreed to a restraining order, but stated in court documents, “The restraining orders are appropriate due to the volatile nature of [Kathleen], as she has accused me of various different things which have no basis in law or fact.”
Leading up to the divorce, court documents paint Milligan as a Realtor whose slipping financial situation led him to become increasingly erratic and to lash out at people close to him. Whether this could lead him to commit an arson is unclear, but it does color the alternate Holy Fire story witnesses have told the Weekly.
The Alternate Story
Clark did believe Frank Romero was cooking meth at his cabin, and even claimed to have a lawsuit against Romero. He loathed Romero, and accused his neighbor of stealing a “legal case” containing the Clark v. Romero documents. In a Facebook post from July 18, three weeks before the fire, Clark wrote:
“Someone stole a Legal Case from my cabin, FRANK ROMERO VS. FORREST CLARK. Highly unlikely that anyone would steal it, unless you r involved w/ [this] drug dealer. Frank hangs out [with] gang members on weekends, stays up all night, runs his 2 stroke water pump all day & night. Doug’s teeth are all rotted out from Frank’s Speed. There are (7) eye witnesses that are eager to testify. (2) people from Holy Jim went to the E.R. after snorting Frank’s METH. I have smelled Eather & other chemicals while they r COOKING, than FR sells SPEED/METH/CRANK . . . In HOLY Jim Canyon. Gang bangers come buy Frank’s on weekends or when F is @ cabin. Frank, please, u or your minions return my FILE, my KEYs & whatever else u or ur cronies took.”
The men’s bitter rivalry was allegedly becoming violent, and Milligan was tired of arbitrating. “I know there’s a lot of tension between [Milligan], [Romero] and [Clark],” a Holy Jim neighbor told the Weekly. “I just know that they have a Hatfield-and-McCoy thing going on. It’s easier for [Romero] to push [Clark]’s buttons. For years, [Romero] had been telling us, ‘That guy’s crazy.’”
Clark’s beef with Romero was apparently intensifying. More important, he had reportedly gotten in numerous, near-physical arguments with Milligan in the weeks leading up to the fire. Milligan, who has been described to the Weekly as equal parts gregarious neighbor and power-hungry local chief, allegedly wanted Clark out of the canyon, pronto.
According to neighbors, Milligan may have set fire to Romero’s house and blamed the neighborhood loonie. To seal the deal, Milligan would use Clark’s numerous threats as evidence. After all, who’s going to believe the neighborhood head-case who thinks the Nabisco symbol on the cracker box is a zeppelin with a transmitter?
Following Clark’s arrest, Milligan told news crews that Clark said, “This place is gonna burn.” But that statement, taken from Clark’s aforementioned email and allegedly addressed to Romero and other Holy Jim residents, actually said, “This place is gonna burn like you wanted it to.” Taken in total, Clark was implying that Milligan was brushing Romero’s alleged meth lab aside and, in doing so, inviting a fire into the canyon. By leaving this caveat out, Milligan was able to implicate Clark and hand the DA a clean case of a crazy guy setting setting the canyon on fire.
According to both neighbors and rumors about the OC Fire Authority arson investigation, the fire started inside Romero’s cabin 15. This contradicts the narrative that a spiteful Clark set fire to Romero’s house from the outside. It also implies that whoever set fire to the structure either had access to Romero’s home (evidence of possible collaboration in the “Frame Clark” scheme) or that Romero’s home was broken into. The Weekly will continue to follow the investigation.
Witness statements regarding Milligan vary as widely as those about Clark. A neighbor who believes Clark set the fire said, “If they let him out into society, somebody’s gonna die. He’s a selfish, evil person, and he’s gonna act extra-crazy to get away with it. If he doesn’t want to go to jail, he’ll fake being crazy. If they put him in a mental ward, I hope they put him in a maximum security one because he’ll find a way out. He’s crazy, but not as crazy as he’s acting.”
Another neighbor, who was on the fence about Clark’s guilt, agreed that he had a short fuse, but added, “He was very kind when he was kind.”
Was Clark an Election Season Patsy?
It’s entirely possible that Clark was a pawn in the race for the district attorney title between Todd Spitzer and Tony Rackauckas. To win, Spitzer and Rackauckas each needed to outdo the other as the Toughest Crime Fighter in OC. Each also made a strong show of disdain for Clark. Spitzer called Clark “a monster” and accused him of “literally [destroying] our forest” in his bombastic Holy Hell Fire speech. Rackauckas’ office, meanwhile, was more subdued in its condemnation of Clark. However, it’s been speculated that rushing Clark to trial before the arson investigation was completed is evidence that it wanted him found guilty.
When asked whether Clark was being used as a pawn, Parness said, “Possibly”; she later called the trial “a political case.”
These theories, though, are still only speculative.
But the media may be the guiltiest party. We’ve condemned Clark because he’s everything a stereotypical arsonist should be: He’s described as “crazy” and “prone to violence,” and he has a sweet mullet. Clark was an outsider in an outsider community. And to make his guilt more obvious, all we had to do was let Clark talk.
Before we proceed to the public hanging of White Trash Jesus, we ought to give him a fair shake and hear the arson investigation. The theory about Milligan setting the fire may be valid. Then again, it may also be a wild goose chase. The only certainty is that things are going to get weirder as the trial proceeds.
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