Man guilty of arson in big Fresno fire

The man who started the fire that destroyed the University Village apartment complex while it was under construction in 2003 was found guilty Monday of arson causing great bodily injury.

David Damore, 25, faces up to nine years in prison for starting what became the most destructive fire in Fresno's history. He will be sentenced next month.

The predawn inferno on May 20, 2003, could be seen from miles away and threatened to spread to neighboring apartment complexes next to the California State University, Fresno, campus. Firefighters kept the flames from reaching the occupied buildings.

One woman who fled her nearby apartment with her young child tripped over a sprinkler head and broke her leg -- prompting prosecutors to charge Damore with causing great bodily injury.

The fire caused $14 million in damage and reduced the nearly-constructed 400-bed University Village apartment to ashes. The complex was later rebuilt.

The jurors reached their verdict in Fresno County Superior Court after about three hours of deliberations. They struck a compromise between the verdict the prosecution was asking for and the verdict the defense wanted.

Prosecutor Mike Frye said during his closing arguments Monday morning that Damore willfully committed premeditated arson that caused significant damage. He asked jurors to find the Oakhurst man guilty of aggravated arson, which could have resulted in a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole after 13 years.

"Did he have a specific intent to damage property? Yes, he knew that the fire was going to spread," Frye said.

But defense attorney Ron Perring said Damore was heavily intoxicated and was acting recklessly. He asked the jury to find him guilty of a lesser charge.

If it was a premeditated crime, Perring said, "You would have had some sort of plan, not a drunk stumbling over there and pulling out a lighter."

In the end, jurors convicted Damore of arson causing great bodily injury -- apparently agreeing that the fire was intentional, but disagreeing that it was premeditated.

During the four-day trial, Damore admitted that he and his friend, Doug Gandy, were partying with some friends late at night near the university campus when they decided to hop the fence surrounding the apartment complex construction zone and walk into the partially built building.

Damore said he used a lighter to ignite some debris in the building, but said it was at Gandy's behest. Damore confessed his crime to police in late 2003. Gandy was also arrested, but entered a plea deal with prosecutors instead of going to trial.

During closing arguments, Perring told jurors that they had to carefully consider Damore's intentions before passing judgment. He said Damore had no clear motive and was simply a "young, immature, stupid person."

"The issue in this case is, what's going on in this young man's head?" Perring asked, clutching Damore's head with both hands. "Was he being willful and malicious? Or was he reckless?"

Frye said Damore's actions were more than just reckless.

"The defendant was the one who reached into his pocket, pulled out a lighter and lit that debris," he said. "His own words tell you he did this on purpose."