A Southern California teen accused of arson in connection with last year's devastating wildfire told investigators she "didn't want to kill anybody" -- only to "see what would happen" when she set the first of two fires in her backyard, according to an audio tape played in court on Monday.
On the tape, the San Marcos girl, now 14, could be heard asking investigators multiple times: "What if it was me?"
The teen girl admitted to starting fires with a lighter the same week the Cocos Fire swept across San Diego’s North County, destroying dozens of homes last May, according to her mother’s testimony in court on Friday.
The suspect said on tape that she felt "really bad" when she set the second fire. On that tape, her mother can be heard asking why the teen did it, to which the girl replies: "I wanted to tell you earlier. I love you, mom. Sorry. Don't hate me. I won't do it again."
In a nearly two-hour long conversation with investigators, the teen said she felt "like a bad person now" and said she didn't mean to do what she did.
The questioning and subsequent confession happened without the girl's mother at her side, though she was asked to tell her mother what happened and told investigators once her mother came in. The recorded admission came about two months after the Cocos Fire.
On the tape, the girl described setting the first of the two fires.
"I got a branch," she's heard saying on the recording. "And I lighted it on fire. Then I put it down, like quick. I told my sister and then I went back out and it was getting bigger. So I went up to tell my mom I was scared."
Prosecutors claim the defendant set two fires in her family’s backyard on May 13 and May 14. One of those fires, prosecutors say, left behind an ember that floated away and eventually sparked the Cocos Fire. That fact, however, has been disputed by defense attorneys.
The Cocos Fire on May 14 prompted the evacuation of a large area of San Marcos and ultimately destroyed 36 homes and caused $10.4 million in damage.
The girl faces four felony charges, including two counts of arson of an inhabited structure or property in which multiple structures were burned, and two counts of arson of a structure or forest land in a reckless manner. She also faces a misdemeanor of unlawfully allowing a fire to escape from one’s control.
It is NBC 7’s policy not to identify juvenile defendants; we are not identifying family members to conceal the defendant’s identity.
Earlier, under cross-examination on Friday, the teenager's mother said she did not believe her daughter could have set the Cocos Fire.
“There was no reason for us to even think that one of the children did that,” the defendant’s mother testified.
Defense attorneys argued earlier this week that a so-called "phantom ember" from the girl's backyard could not have traveled the distance prosecutors have alleged.
Prosecutors told NBC 7 the family rejected a plea agreement offer in the weeks before trial began.
Officials have set up an information line for victims, where they can call for basic information on the case and leave messages with questions. That number is 858-694-4241.
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