Did Lenny Do It?

Painted Cave Fire new[August, 2000] In 1996 Leonard "Lenny" Ross emerged as the prime suspect when his former live-in girlfriend, Peggy Lynn Finley, told investigators that he had confessed to her during a love-making session enhanced by the drug Ecstacy that he was the one who started the Painted Cave Fire. That new information prompted authorities to reopen the long dormant fire investigation, but they still were unable to gather enough evidence to file criminal charges against him. Instead, in August 2000, he was named as the alleged arsonist in a civil lawsuit filed by Santa Barbara County that seeked about $1 million for fire related damages to county facilities, investigative and firefighting costs.

The prosecution alleged Ross had deliberately set the fire to burn out a neighboring landowner with whom he had a long-standing "Hatfields and McCoys-style" feud. It was an act, the defense contended, of "revenge that got out of control".

The supposed target of the wrath, Michael Linthicum, testified on the opening day of the trial that Ross and another man had threatened to burn his house, about a month before the fire. Linthicum's property and home, although about a half-mile from where the flames began, were directly in the fire's path and his was the first house that burned.

Ross readily admitted that there had been bitter disputes between Linthicum and him for years, but denied he had threatened to burn him out or knew beforehand that Linthicum's fire insurance had lapsed.

On the witness stand Ross's ex-girlfriend Pegy Lynn Finley made a dramatic, tearful appearance. But Finley may have had questionable motives for testifying because she was involved in a bitter custody battle over their two children.

It did look bad for Ross however when another ex-girlfriend, Carrie Givens, testified he had told her in 1978 that he set fire to his motorcycle salvage business earlier that year to collect the insurance money, which he used toward the down payment on his 40 acres of mountainside property.

Even worse was the handful of witnesses who saw a car similar to Ross's at the fire's ignition point. Some picked Ross's car out of a photo lineup. Some describe seeing a man who looked like Ross. One worked with a sketch artist to create an image strikingly close to Ross's features.

Less compelling was the army-green baseball cap that investigators found in Ross's workshop. Witnesses said the man they saw at the ignition point was wearing a dark-colored or blue cap. The prosecution emphasized that fact that Ross was evasive about owning such a hat when initially interviewed by detectives.

It was also Ross's birthday the day the fire started. Coincidence?

When arson investigators originally determined where the fire started and what incendiary device was used to start the fire, they kept it a secret in order to screen out those who tried to claim responsibility for the fire in order to gain publicity. A few people did try to claim responsibility for starting the fire, but none of them could correctly state what the incendiary device used to start the fire was.

During this trial the incendiary device used to start the fire was finally revealed. And what was the "incendiary device" kept so secret for all these years that started the most devastating fire in the history of Santa Barbara? Who would have guessed the secret device was—a match!

Putting this memory aside let's travel from Leadbetter beach down Cabrillo Blvd. to Stearns Wharf which had its own disastrous fire in 1998.