Brewer goes to trial for Columbia fire

By Christina O'Haver, The Union Democrat March 25, 2013 08:43 am

A Tuolumne County man will stand trial for allegedly burning down a restaurant in Columbia State Historic Park in December. 

At a preliminary hearing in Tuolumne County Superior Court on Friday, Judge Eleanor Provost ordered Daenon Vincent Brewer, 22, be held to answer to charges of arson and being under the influence of opiates. 

Brewer will return to court in April, where he will again be formally read the charges and re-enter a plea. A trial date may be confirmed.

Brewer previously pleaded guilty to the arson charge when he accepted a plea deal from the District Attorney’s Office. 

However, Judge Eric DuTemple on Feb. 11 granted a motion from the District Attorney’s Office to reject the deal. Prosecutors asked the court to reject the deal because they discovered damage to the Columbia House Restaurant amounted to nearly $1 million — far greater than the initial estimate of $250,000.

Brewer’s plea deal would have required him to register as an arsonist and serve two years in state prison with the possibility for parole after one year.

Also part of the agreement, his misdemeanor charge of being under the influence of opiates at the time of the arson, plus unrelated misdemeanor charges, would have been dismissed. 

The defendant’s mental illness was also taken into consideration at the time of the plea offer, Deputy District Attorney Clint Parish said.

Brewer’s mother, Dana Lancaster, of Sonora, said her son has been struggling with mental illness since he was hit by a car on May 14, 2010, in the Twain Harte area.

Brewer was in a coma and on life support at Memorial Medical Center in Modesto. His injuries included a brain hemorrhage, shattered leg and burst spleen. 

Lancaster said his traumatic brain injury has led to multiple personality disorder, anger and paranoia.

Brewer had a drug addiction prior to the accident and now “self-medicates,” she said.

The night of the fire, Brewer told a nurse he had taken 30mg of morphine, Neil Evans of the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office testified Friday.

Evans said he smelled alcohol on Brewer’s breath and, after conducting several sobriety tests, determined Brewer was under the influence of a central nervous system depressant. 

He was also in possession of a small amount of marijuana, Evans testified.

Evans was dispatched to the City Hotel on Dec. 30 after the manager reported a man causing a disturbance.

The manager told the Sheriff’s Office that Brewer asked her for a cigarette and became belligerent when she didn’t give him one, Evans testified. 

While enroute, Evans received another call from the manager stating Brewer set fire to the Columbia House Restaurant. She said Brewer threw a “ball of fire” at the building, Evans testified.

Evans later searched Brewer and found two lighters in his possession. 

Fire investigators determined the blaze was human-caused and identified a live Christmas tree inside the restaurant as the origin.

Public Defender Carolyn Woodall pointed out that the manager saw Brewer start the fire from outside the building. Woodall said there was no evidence showing Brewer gained entry into the restaurant.

The front door to the Main Street restaurant was completely burned away, Tuolumne County Fire Investigator Steve Gregory testified. 

About 75 percent of the structure was destroyed, but no injuries were reported.

Evans arrested Brewer at State and Main streets in Columbia about 6:34 p.m., roughly 10 minutes after Cal Fire received multiple reports of the fire.

Evans testified that Brewer was watching the fire with a crowd of about 100 people and the manager identified him as the arsonist. 

Brewer told Evans he didn’t start the fire and caused a disturbance to notify people about it, Evans testified.

The fire was contained at 8:02 p.m. and completely extinguished at 10:08 p.m., according to Cal Fire.

Brewer’s re-arraignment is scheduled for April 2 at 1:30 p.m. in Department 1.