Breaking News
More () »

PG&E manslaughter hearing begins with arguments, tree evidence

PG&E faces four felony manslaughter counts for starting the 2020 Zogg Fire in Shasta County

REDDING, Calif. — A team of lawyers for PG&E filed into criminal court in Shasta County on Wednesday, the first day of weeks of hearings on felony manslaughter charges against the company.

The charges stem from the 2020 Zogg Fire, which PG&E admits was sparked by one of the company's power lines.

New evidence from that fire is spilling into view as Shasta County prosecutors seek to convict the company of killing four people in the hills above Redding.

The dead included 8-year-old Feyla McLeod and her mom Alaina, who were overcome by fire trying to escape their home in a pickup truck.

“No one should go through that. No one should even have to imagine going through that,” said husband and father Zach McLoed. “I never did.”

Zach is trying to find his footing in an unexpected new life; one without his wife and daughter. He wants to see PG&E brought to justice for starting the fire.

“It might not have been intentional. I understand that,” said Zach McLeod. “No one came after my family with guns and weapons, but there was negligence involved.”

CLICK HERE to watch every episode of ABC10's Fire - Power - Money series.

Prosecutors agree. They charged PG&E with four felony counts of involuntary manslaughter for the deaths. They also filed six more felonies and 21 misdemeanors in the case, including reckless emission of air contaminants.

During opening statements, PG&E attorneys argued that it can’t be convicted of those environmental charges because causing a fire that emits smoke is not the same thing as directly emitting smoke from a stationary source like a factory smokestack.

A judge rejected that argument when PG&E sought to have the charges tossed out in a previous filing called a demurrer.

PG&E Corporation has 91 prior felony convictions on its record after causing two deadly disasters: the 2018 Camp Fire and the 2010 San Bruno Gas explosion.

84 of those convictions are the same kind of manslaughter charged in the Zogg Fire. In each of those prior felony cases, PG&E paid a few million dollars in fines but no one went to prison.

“This isn't one person, it's a corporation,” Zach McLeod said. “I really do hope that it does affect some change and keeps people safer.”

“They need to be held liable for their conduct,” District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett said about PG&E. “The surviving family members need to have their day in court, the community needs to know that this is something we're not going to tolerate.”

PG&E’s legal team wouldn’t comment, but in opening statements they denied the company’s behavior amounts to criminal negligence.

“The issues of what trees need to be removed are judgment calls,” said defense attorney Brad Brian. “Judgment calls are not crimes.”

“We believe PG&E did not commit any crimes,” company spokesperson Lynsey Paulo said via email. “We believe the conduct of our coworkers and contractors reflects good-faith judgment by qualified individuals.”

Pointing out that PG&E spends “billions” to manage trees along its 80,000 miles of power lines in fire country, Brian suggested that the company did all it could to prevent the Zogg Fire.

“I disagree with that. They didn't remove the tree. That's humanly possible,” said Bridgett. “They were aware of the tree and it should have been removed. It was not removed because of the systemic problems within PG&E when it comes to their vegetation management, and because of that, four people lost their lives.”

Cal Fire Capt. Darren Stewart, the Zogg Fire arson investigator, was the sole witness on day one.

He described the pine tree that fell on the power lines as an obvious safety problem.

The tree had a large open wound at its base. Arborists found it had been that way for years, putting the tree at risk of falling in a windstorm– which it did on the day of the fire.

It’s why Capt. Stewart recommended criminal charges against PG&E, which has a duty to operate its power lines safely.

This is a preliminary hearing.

There’s no jury. The point is for Judge Bradley L. Boeckman to decide whether PG&E will have to stand trial on the alleged charges.

The hearings could stretch into mid-February.

GO DEEPER: This story is part of ABC10's FIRE - POWER - MONEY reporting project. If you have a tip that could reveal more about California's crisis with utilities and wildfires, please contact investigative reporter Brandon Rittiman at brittiman@abc10.com.


PG&E faces manslaughter counts, family urges court transparency

Before You Leave, Check This Out