Man accused of throwing brush onto Oceanside fire says he was trying to put it out with dirt

Alberto Serrato is bound over for trial in July

VISTA - Alberto Serrato claims he was trying to put the fire out by throwing handfuls of dirt on it, but investigators say he was fanning the flames by adding brush to the 110-acre fire in the San Luis River bed during last month’s firestorm.

A San Diego County Superior Court judge ruled there is enough evidence to hold  57-year-old Serrato over for trial.

An Oceanside police officer testified he saw Serrato standing with a group of about eight men on the levy above the riverbed, and witnessed him picking up two handfuls of brush and placing them atop a smoldering pile.

During cross-examination, Serrato’s attorney, Debby Kirkwood asked whether what the officer really saw was her client throwing dirt.  “No,” answered Officer Frank McCutcheon.

A defense witness testified she watched Serrato getting close to the fire, but never saw him throw brush on it.

Some of Serrato’s family members were in the Vista courtroom during testimony. “It was hard to sit through, hard to see, because we know the person that he really is,” said sister-in-law Tracy Phebus-Serrato.

Family members say police were out to get Serrato because he has a criminal past, but they claim he’s been a law-abiding citizen for several years.

“He hasn’t been in trouble for so long, why would he do something to try to get back into that type of trouble?” asked Phebus-Serrato.

If convicted, Serrato faces up to 13 years in prison because the alleged arson happened during a state of emergency and because he’s an ex-con.  The normal sentence for arson is six years.

Trial is set to begin July 22. Serrato remains in the Vista jail, unable to post $25,000 bail.

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