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Gun, alcohol bottle found at fire-crew crash site

Court officials revealed Thursday that a bottle of alcohol and a gun were found at the site of the fatal Sept. 6 crash of a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spotter plane in the Tulare County mountains north of Springville.

The Cal Fire report -- whose existence wasn't revealed in court until Wednesday -- could affect the trial of a Tulare man accused of murder and illegally setting several small forest fires the plane was circling when it crashed.

John Jackson, the attorney representing 29-year-old Patrick Courtney, said Cal Fire officials deliberately withheld the report until just before his client's trial, which is scheduled to begin Tuesday. Court officials were originally scheduled for a pretrial hearing Wednesday, but it was delayed until Thursday.

"They are trying to sabotage our case," said Jackson, who accused Cal Fire officials of having the report since the time his client was arrested.

Prosecutor Tim Ward denied Jackson's allegation of sabotage and said he also wasn't aware of the report until recently. He said discovery of the report will likely delay Courtney's trial.

Jackson said he hasn't seen the entire report, but he said it indicates that a Glock handgun and a bottle of alcohol were found at the crash site. He said he didn't know where in the wreckage the items were found or whether the bottle contained alcohol. Jackson also didn't know whether the report stated the items had anything to do with the cause of the crash.

Courtney is charged with recklessly starting two fires and is charged with two counts of second-degree murder under laws that allow such charges when someone dies as the result of another crime.

The crash of the OV-10A spotter plane near the Bear Creek Drainage, a remote canyon above Springville, claimed the lives of Rob Stone, a battalion chief with Cal Fire, and George "Sandy" Willett, a contract pilot.

Jackson said prosecution and law enforcement agencies are required to hand over information that may provide evidence of the innocence of a criminal defendant. He asked Superior Court Judge James Hollman to issue sanctions in the case, which could range from a warning to dismissal of the charges against Courtney.

Cal Fire spokesman Michael Jarvis said Thursday he couldn't comment on why the report wasn't turned over earlier. He confirmed it was created by Cal Fire's air accident investigation team.

Jarvis said he couldn't comment on the contents of the report because of the ongoing court case. But he did say that Cal Fire regulations prohibit fire crews from carrying guns or possessing alcohol while on duty, or carrying the items in Cal Fire vehicles and planes.

The National Transportation Safety Board has yet to release a probable-cause report on the crash.

Hollman said Cal Fire officials should have been aware of their obligation to turn over the report, but he wanted to see it before making any more pronouncements. He ordered Ward to turn the report over to Jackson no later than Monday, when a pretrial conference for Courtney's case is scheduled.

Ward said a blood alcohol test on Willett's body came back negative. A test wasn't conducted on Stone's remains, he said.