Woodside: Homeowner claims he was falsely accused of arson after house fire | June 26, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - June 26, 2013

Woodside: Homeowner claims he was falsely accused of arson after house fire

by Dave Boyce

James Irizarry, the owner of the Woodside home at 1200 Bear Gulch Road destroyed by fire a year ago, has filed a defamation lawsuit against a Redwood City real estate agent.

A complaint filed with the San Mateo County Superior Court accuses Larry Aikins and the real estate agency that he owns, Terrace Associates, of falsely claiming that Mr. Irizarry intentionally set the house on fire in hopes of a windfall in insurance money to alleviate Mr. Irizarry's financial distress.

Mr. Aikins did not respond to a request for comment. Don Dowling, Mr. Aikins' attorney, said he had no comment except to say that the allegations are of slander, an oral statement, and not libel, which would be written.

Mr. Aikins is a commissioner for the port of Redwood City, a former planning commissioner for the city, and a former chair of the Redwood City Chamber of Commerce, according to an online biography. He has been chief financial officer of the Chamber since 1991.

The June 6 complaint says that "false and malicious statements made to various parties" are untrue, were known by Mr. Aikins to be untrue, and were defamatory and intended to injure Mr. Irizarry's reputation. The cause of the fire was and remains unknown, the complaint says.

That assertion was confirmed by Fire Chief Dan Ghiorso of the Woodside Fire Protection District. "The cause is still undetermined and will remain that way, unless something comes to light in this lawsuit," Chief Ghiorso said in an email: "We have no reason to believe it is arson and of course no evidence to that assertion."

Mr. Irizarry's attorney, J. Philip Martin of Mountain View, said that Mr. Irizarry has an office in Half Moon Bay, lives in the "Woodside area," and once worked as a real estate agent for Terrace Associates. Mr. Irizarry owned the Bear Gulch Road house, but did not live in it, Mr. Martin added.

The complaint goes on to say that the allegations of arson have created additional insurance-related and legal expenses for Mr. Irizarry, and that he is seeking compensation for loss of reputation and emotional distress as well as punitive damages.

Water from above

The three-alarm fire on June 2, 2012, drew a massive response from area firefighting agencies. All told, there were 71 firefighting personnel and 27 vehicles at the scene from seven firefighting agencies, including Woodside Fire, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, San Mateo County, Redwood City, San Carlos, Menlo Park and Belmont.

Firefighters needed almost two hours to bring the blaze under control. A crew of 15 prison inmates from a camp in Ben Lomond was called in to cut brush and create a dirt perimeter around the fire. A helicopter dropped three 500-gallon buckets of water, which prevented the fire from becoming a conflagration in the surrounding forest, Chief Ghiorso said at the time.

The residents, who were renting the house, were not at home at the time of the fire. The only injury was to one firefighter who was evacuated and treated for heat exhaustion but later returned to duty.

Water pressure at hydrants in this remote neighborhood fell off at one point and the California Water Service Company shut down other areas of service to divert an adequate supply to the hydrants, the chief said.


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