Trial begins for Oceanside arson suspect

VISTA, Calif. - Opening statements began Monday in the trial of an ex-con accused of throwing brush on a smoldering fire in the San Luis Rey riverbed during a series of wind-fueled fires in San Diego County in May, causing the blaze to start up again.

Alberto Serrato, 57, is charged with arson during a state of emergency; he is not accused of starting the fire. The usual arson sentence is six year, but he faces 13 years in prison if convicted because of the state of emergency and his criminal past.

He wore a tan button-down shirt and black slacks and remained calm at the start of the opening statements.

Oceanside police Lt. Val Sadaat alleged Serrato was spotted using something to fan the flames of the fire in the bed of the San Luis Rey River. Serrato tried to run, but didn't get far and was arrested about 3:15 p.m. on May 14, the lieutenant said.

The motive for the alleged arson was unclear.

In court Monday, Deputy District Attorney Tracy Prior accused Serrato of making a "dangerous act during a dangerous time."

However, Serrato's defense attorney said police were negligent in their duty and overzelous in their arrest. The defense attorney said the prosecution was "making a big deal of something that wasn't a big deal."

Serrato's defense said he threw dirt, not brush, and said the claim was "just ridiculous."

Serrato's defense said his family lives next to the fire, so he was trying to put it out. His defense team seemed to point to somewhat of a rivalry between members of the Oceanside Police Department and members of the Serrato family.

The defense said the turmoil is so bad one relative has the f word, followed by OPD, tattooed on his forehead.

The blaze -- dubbed the River Fire -- erupted east of College Boulevard in the early afternoon and was contained about 7:45 p.m.

Authorities said one structure was damaged in the 105-acre blaze, one of more than a half-dozen fires that were burning in San Diego County at the time amid a Red Flag alert posted due to heat, winds and low humidity.

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