Alleged arsonist to stand trial

An alleged arsonist accused of sparking multiple fires in the Bass Lake area will stand trial for nine felonies, including eight counts of arson and for making criminal threats to his ex-wife, Judge Charles A. Weiland ruled last week.

During his preliminary hearing inside Weiland’s Bass Lake courtroom Thursday, March 17, Michael Lee Lapschies, 41, made little movement as Madera County District Attorney David Linn laid out the case against him.

Linn’s first witness, Amanda Ritchie, said Lapschies called her Sept. 30, shortly before he began his alleged stretch of lighting fires.

During the call, Ritchie said Lapschies, her ex-husband, informed her he had just been released from a mental hospital before his statements took a dark turn.

“He said if I refused to go to Hell he was going to bring Hell to me,” Ritchie said, who’s previously obtained multiple restraining orders against Lapschies.

Ritchie, who testified she feared for her life following the call, and Lapschies leaving her “more messages than I could count,” added more frightening details.

“He said he had a conversation with God and the devil and they were planning on executing judgment on evildoers,” Ritchie said. “And I was on the top of their list.”

Defense attorney Kevin Wiemer said after the hearing he’s waiting for psychiatric reports on Lapschies, but didn’t comment if they could lead to an insanity plea.

Lapschies has plead not guilty to all counts, including the threats as well as the alleged eight fires he lit in a few hours around the Bass Lake area.

During Thursday’s preliminary hearing, Linn brought in Cal Fire Captain Frank Bigelow, Jr. and Battalion Commander Bernie Quinn, the case’s investigating officer.

Around 2:45 p.m. Sept. 30, Bigelow said he received a call about the first blaze allegedly lit by Lapschies, along Road 222 near Pettitt Road.

Fires were later reported around 3:40 p.m. on Road 222 near Skylake Yosemite Camp, then at 5:30 on Hidden Meadows Road.

The eight blazes were all quickly contained at less than half an acre each. Quinn later testified Lapschies told him - before initially denying his involvement - he started the fires due to sexual abuse as a child in some areas and because he felt others needed to be cleared to protect wildlife.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Larry Rich testified he located and arrested Lapschies around 8:10 p.m. on Road 420. Lapschies had an airsoft pistol and smart phone running a radio scanner inside his vehicle, Rich said.

Wiemer didn’t call any witnesses for the defense.

“Arson has been a major problem in Eastern Madera County,” Linn said in his motion to take Lapschies to trial. “Mr. Lapschies, starting eight fires in one day without regards to ultimate destruction that could occur to forest land and the surrounding homes poses a great threat to society.”

Wiemer said Lapschies would answer to the arson counts, but defended against the felony threat charge on the grounds words like “executing judgment” and others don’t concretely imply violent intent.

Weiland, in his ruling, said the threats described by Ritchie were sufficient to take to trial.

Lapschies will be arraigned April 5 in the Sierra Division of Madera County Superior Court at Bass Lake.

He faces a maximum sentence of 55 years in prison, and is held in Madera County Jail on $4.4 million bail.

Lapschies claims residence in Fresno, though he previously lived in Coarsegold.