FLASHBACK: Man charged in 49er Fire released in 2002
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by The Union in February 2002.
A mentally ill transient who started the devastating 49er Fire in 1988 was granted freedom in 2002 in Nevada County Superior Court, after psychiatric reports showed he no longer poses a public threat.
A smiling Gary Wayne Parris, his gray beard thick, hair to the middle of his back and bald on top, shuffled down the courthouse hallway for his trip back to Wayne Brown Correctional Facility, where he was released.
“I can’t hardly believe it yet. After 13 years (of incarceration), I can’t hardly believe it,” the 52-year-old said. “I can’t wait to feel the breeze on my face when I step out the door.”
Judge William Skillman granted the release after Deputy Public Defender Daniel Geffner and Assistant District Attorney Ron Wolfson let a recent series of psychiatric reports speak for themselves.
Perhaps the most influential, written by Dr. Hadley Osran, chief forensic psychiatrist at Atascadero State Hospital, found Parris was still ill with schizophrenia but no longer posed a substantial risk of danger to the public.
A Patton State Hospital report concurred, while another psychiatrist said Parris should remain hospitalized.
Two years ago, the lawyers toiled over the issue at trial, and a jury decided Parris was unfit to be released. Osran at that time had argued against Parris’ release.
But doctors said he has improved since then, and Wolfson wasn’t inclined to challenge their reports.
“It’s apparent he finally decided to cooperate, and he’s doing well and worked hard,” Wolfson said Monday. “We have to recognize the evidence, and the evidence wasn’t there to sustain the petition (to have Parris remain incarcerated).”
Parris could have received 18 months of incarceration had he admitted to a charge of recklessly starting a fire. He instead pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, subjecting him to limitless time in state hospitals.
Parris started the fire Sept. 11, 1988, by igniting toilet paper while living in a San Juan Ridge encampment near Highway 49 and Birchville Road. The fire went on to claim 33,000 acres and more than 140 homes, causing $22 million in property damage.
He later told doctors he heard voices, could make planes crash by thinking about it, and believed his food had been poisoned with human flesh. He most recently received treatment at Patton in San Bernardino.
Tony Clarabut, unit chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, had a mixed reaction to Parris’ release.
“Mr. Parris was responsible for a devastating fire in Nevada County that still ranks as the 11th highest structure loss in California history,” he said, “and our only hope is that the doctors who did the evaluation for his release are correct in that evaluation.”
Both Geffner and Wolfson hoped Parris would have received outpatient treatment before his full release into society, but the law doesn’t require it.
Parris’ immediate plans included heading to the county’s Department of Behavioral Health Services to get enough medication for a trip to Texas, where his sister lives. Parris, Geffner said, also pledged to keep taking his medications, follow his treatment program and attend Alcoholics Anonymous.
“He was locked up for 13 years,” Geffner said. “He told me he knows most people who drop off their treatment programs wind up going back.”
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