Shortly after 1 p.m. on Aug. 6, cabin 15 on Trabuco Creek Road burst into flames. By 7 p.m., approximately 1,200 acres of the Cleveland National Forest had burned. Cabin 15, owned by a man named Frank R. (authorities had not released his full name as of press time), was the first of 14 cabins that have been destroyed by the Holy Fire. (Although cabin address numbers range from 1 to 62, there were never more than roughly a dozen dwellings.) One of the few cabins left standing in Holy Jim Canyon was owned by Forrest Gordon Clark.
The felony complaint against Clark says the Holy Fire was sparked when Clark set fire to Frank R.’s cabin.
Clark was arrested outside of his cabin the next morning while wearing only a pair of camouflage skivvies, a golden medallion the size of a grapefruit around his neck, and a pair of black sunglasses. According to the OC Sheriff’s Department, Clark resisted arrest but was quickly detained. He has since been charged with six counts—three felony arsons with malicious intent, felony criminal threats against the aforementioned Frank R., and two felony counts of resisting arrest. After refusing to attend his initial arraignment, Clark appeared in OC Central Court on Friday and screamed that he would pay his $1 million bail “easily. I’ll take care of that right now.”
It is important to note that residents of Holy Jim are typically suspicious and private in nature. The community itself is reminiscent of a mid-20th-century Kentucky town deep in the hollows of Appalachia. Homes here run on propane generators, and access to the nearest grocery store is via a winding, 5-mile dirt road that washes out during the rainy months. In winter, the canyon is only accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicles with high clearance. The canyon attracts people who want isolation and rally around their own in times of trouble. In its solitude, conspiracy theories spread through the canyon like a summer fire.
Clark’s neighbors hold two viewpoints of him. One is that he is a neighborhood loon whose conspiracy theories make Alex Jones look like Walter Cronkite. Clark, they say, has threatened his neighbors for years and claimed he would burn the canyon down in an email to Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mike Milligan. This is the Forrest Gordon Clark the lamestream media wants Orange County to know about.
But there is another view of Forrest Gordon Clark: a misunderstood town crier whose outlandish opinions are as true as they are crazy. To those with this opinion, Clark is revered as a prophet of doom and a harbinger of redemption. As Matt Coker pointed out last week, this “White Trash Jesus” may be a patsy in a scheme far larger than he could handle.
“I saw a white pickup leaving the canyon. It was moments after that [that] I saw smoke,” said a Holy Jim resident whom we’ll call Mrs. Doe. (Both she and her husband have lived in the canyon for 20 years and agreed to speak with the Weekly on the condition they remain anonymous.) “I tried to tell the police about the pickup, but they wouldn’t take the testimony,” she said.
“He made threats against people in the community, so they’re building a case against him,” said Mr. Doe. “We have every reason to hate Forrest, but he’s innocent until proven guilty. All this stuff that’s been put out is to shift the entire narrative against Forrest. The district attorney does this stuff all the time; I’ve witnessed it firsthand.”
Clark told police he was asleep at the time of the fire. According to the Does, Clark’s alibi is plausible and reinforces the theory that Clark has been framed as a patsy in order to silence him. “I just know that Forrest and Frank had this Hatfield-and-McCoy thing going on,” said Mrs. Doe. “It was easier for Frank to push Forrest’s buttons than it was for Forrest to push Frank’s. For years, Frank had been telling us, ‘That guy’s crazy!’ We didn’t know anything about that because Forrest was always nice to us. I know there’s a lot of tension between Mike Milligan, Frank and Forrest. That thing was lethal, so we just stayed out of the politics.”
The Does say Forrest was volatile but had a soft side. “He was very kind when he was kind,” said Mrs. Doe. “Last time I saw him, he gave [Mr. Doe] a hug. That was his little way of apologizing.”
According to the Does, Clark—who claims he fears the MS 13 is after him, telling news crews the international gang planned on sending “eight big Mexicans to kill him”—may have been telling the truth. They speculate that Clark pissed off an offshoot of the cartel by reporting on their expansive covert activities in the remote canyon; that Frank and Milligan set fire to cabin 15 to frame Forrest; or that the fire is a ploy by DA Tony Rackauckas to get re-elected and run a secret sex-trafficking ring.
Though Clark seems like a lone freedom fighter turned patsy, the Does say he is not acting alone. “Forrest had been trying to rope me into his terrorist militia for years,” said Mr. Doe. “They’re an anti-government group. They’re gonna bring down the government. They have their own economy, their own army, and they’re taking over. They’ve been saying the whole block of downtown Santa Ana by the jail and the Civic Center is gonna go up in smoke. It’s all rigged to blow! I’ve been listening to this for years.”
Mr. Doe believes that the white truck his wife witnessed speeding past their home may have been an anti-militia truck and that this new organization may have been working in tandem with either MS 13 or the district attorney’s office and Milligain to start the fire.
Despite the Does’ insistence that Clark is innocent until proven guilty, they do have their doubts about their neighbor’s character. Mrs. Doe recounted an incident with Clark a few months back in which she was physically threatened. “Forrest was in the trees trimming branches when I drove up in my car,” she recalled. “When I moved the branches he’d been dropping in the road, he was furious. He got in his Jeep and drove right at me.” Mrs. Doe says she narrowly escaped a collision with Clark’s Jeep that day and that this wasn’t their first run-in with the man.
“As time went on, we just thought to ourselves something wasn’t right,” she continued. “Frank would tell us Forrest was cutting our water lines, but we just figured it was [because] they had a beef. But now, looking back, we’re not sure.”
Elvis Castillo, a Holy Jim resident who was struck by Clark when he was a teenager, recounted how Clark’s suspicion was deadly. Clark accosted Castillo when he and some friends (including my brother) were barbecuing outside his parents’ home in 2014. Clark accused the boys of trying to start a fire. The boys denied the accusation but extinguished the fire. Clark wouldn’t let it go, however: He told the fire marshal about the incident and began taking pictures of the boys. Castillo retaliated by taking a picture of Clark. “That’s when he kicked the phone out of my hand,” Castillo said, adding that Clark pulled a shotgun on the boys and threatened to use it.
OC Sheriff’s deputies responded, handing Castillo an infraction for igniting a fire 25 feet from a building. Clark was let off with a warning.
As the Weekly previously reported, Clark has sought habeas corpus for mental health issues in the ’90s, been arrested for domestic violence and elder abuse against his mother (who subsequently filed a restraining order against him), and has been caught forging his car registration.
It seems likely that Clark—who was recently detained in a psychiatric hospital—set the fire. Whether the Does’ theory about the white truck is true, or whether Clark and Frank R.’s fued finally combusted disastrously, it’s certain that the Holy Fire smoked out the conspiracy theorists.