Did Lenny Do It?
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
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
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.