Cocos Fire Trial Witness

Outside the Courtroom

Outside the Courtroom


First frame showing flame from the Cocos Fire

2014-05-14-DSC02830-069 (1)

First frame showing the smoke from the Washingtonia fire.

I was a little nervous.

I was due at 330 W. Broadway in San Diego on the 8th floor at 1000am. The place I had parked the day before was full – wow was it full! I drove around and found a spot at Beech and Union. $10. I parked and walked to the Hall of Justice.

I turned the corner and saw 10News and CBS8 vehicles at the curb. I walked up the Hall of Justice stairs. This is where many a famous trial had been resolved. I went through the metal detector, taking off my belt, and quickly going through the process without issue. The day before I left my belt on and they had me go back through. Not this day.

I took the elevator to the 8th floor. I went to the DA waiting room and told reception who I was waiting for – Lynn Darius. In a couple of minutes she was there. I dashed into the bathroom and looked in the mirror to be sure everything was looking good. We walked on the bridge between the two court buildings to the fourth floor and wound our way to the courtroom. I waited on a bench outside the room. I waited about 25 minutes. I saw some people come and go. I saw Steve Price, CBS8 reporter and Rory Devine from NBC7. About 1030AM Lynn came out and said it was time.

I walked through the doors and saw the courtroom. There were a few spectators. I saw the judge in front of me and a bailiff on the right pointing me to the clerk where she read the swearing-in oath. After, I proceeded to the witness stand. I said hi to Deputy District Attorney Shawnalyse Ochoa and Arnold Van Lingen, the investigator, and passed the 3 TV cameras where the jury would be located. It was CBS8, NBC7 and 10News(ABC). I stepped up and sat down in the witness stand. The DDA said hi and asked me to state my name. I said John Melson – M as in Mary elson. She asked what I did for a living. I said I was a software developer. She asked when I first started taking photos. I said 1977.

I glanced over at the juvenile and saw her for the first time. She looked very tired and defeated. I saw no other family members. She looked a little bored and a little overwhelmed by everything.

The DDA asked me where I was at 3pm on May 14 2014. I said I was in the office and editing photos I just taken from Double Peak Park in San Marcos for a Facebook post. I said my neighbor 2 doors down had knocked on the door and said there was smoke on the ridge in our backyard. I said I took photos.

We discussed how the camera recorded the time.

We discussed the file naming process that I do with my photos.

I discussed the timeline of photos from 3:25:28 (saying 25 minutes and 28 seconds after 3pm).

I explained how I verified the time on my photos – I took a photo as the minute changed on my phone and took the SD card and reviewed the image detail. I was off by 2 seconds.

I got thirsty and asked if I could have a drink of water. Shawnalyse Ochoa said be careful as the water pours out quickly.

We discussed the first set of photos. I felt that she could have managed me a little better and run the timeline section better. Looking back on it, it seems a little disjointed (to me).

We discussed the timeline of the first few photos. Going back and forth.

I noticed that you do not get to tell your story when you are on the witness stand. You are solely there to help illustrate the DDA’s story.

At one point in time the DDA misstated how I was using the GPS capability. I said I wanted to make a comment, and the judge said no.

The DDA asked me what camera I used.

I often used my printout of the GeoSetter application to help me verify which image I was looking at. The images look very similar. And this showed the timestamps. Everyone there thought that I could look at a photo and know which one it was – and the time. This was not possible as I took several images in burst mode.

The DDA asked me about how many photos that I took. I said about 450.

The DDA asked if I knew the name of the street visible or if I had ever been there.
I said no to both questions.

They asked if I saw anyone or any vehicles driving. I did not see anyone up there when I was taking photos.

But lo and behold, in one of the later images, you can see a fire engine driving down the street. I remember sitting in the witness stand thinking, how is this possible? How did I not see this? Holy cow there is a fire engine going down the road. Wow. The first time I ever saw that was when I was sitting on the witness stand. I remember CBS8 asking me that question on both of their visits to my house to interview me.

At one point the DDA had a photo up and then asked if I saw anything suspicious.

I said yes there was the man on the motorcycle. She gave me a little bit of a look like What? And then she corrected herself and said, IN THE PHOTO do I see anything suspicious. I said No I saw nothing suspicious.

The TV camera operators were somewhat slobby. Their camera would just point at me. When the DDA approached me, the camera would pan with her. I was about 8 feet from the cameras. I only fully looked at them once or twice.

I glanced and looked at the juvenile several times, longer and longer. Once or twice we looked at each other. There was no emotion.

I noticed the judge seemed to have not so much patience. He was moving things along. I almost get the feeling he knew where this was heading. Not quite, but almost. He did not want to mess around.

Near the end I had to review the images and the judge said it was time for the 1105AM break so I could review the images during the break.

I did get through most of them during the 15 minute break but not all. When we were back in session, it took me about a minute and then I was done. The DDA said she had no further questions. We could not have done that before the break?

The defense discussed if I took the image noted as the one for the last one before the two fires are visible. I took a moment and was able to say yes. Then he said he had no further questions.

Wow that was quick.

There were several photos still on the witness stand. I just got up, stepped down and met the paralegal and Shawnalyse Ochoa said thank you and we walked out.

I walked out with the paralegal and as I turned to walk up Union, I saw two TV cameras set up in front of the Hall of Justice and reporters preparing for reports.

I headed back to my car, parked at Beech and Union and got in my car and went to work.


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