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No guilt in the Harlow fire?

Madera County Historical Society Ed Bates, before he was elected Sheriff of Madera County, was one of the polygraph experts who questioned the suspects in the Harlow fire.


It wasn’t climate change or a lightning bolt that started the Harlow fire in 1961. It was a teen ager who was trying to help some cowboys make a horse roundup easier.

Frederick Litke, who lived just a short distance from the Harlow ranch, turned 18 on July 10, the day he started the fire. He had heard some of the men remark that it would be a lot easier if they could get rid of the heavy brush that surrounded the area.

Fred decided to take matters into his own hands, and with nothing but a book of matches, gathered some weeds and ignited the spark. He figured that the fire would extinguish itself when it reached the horse trail at the top of the ridge. He was wrong, and that’s what started the blaze that ravaged two communities and took two lives.

When the fire didn’t stop at the ridge, Litke didn’t run away. He stayed right there, and when the California Division of Forestry crews arrived, he was one of the first to volunteer to fight the fire. In fact, he singed his right ear fighting the blaze.

The Harlow fire ran for five days, but the law had its eyes set on Litke before the flames reached Deadwood Peak.

He became a prime suspect after flunking a lie detector test. Other information placed him at the scene at the time the fire broke out. About 10 p.m. on the second day of the fire, after some heavy questioning, Litke confessed. On July 26, he was held on suspicion of arson and two counts of murder.

Reportedly “very remorseful,” Litke said he “didn’t mean to hurt anybody or cause any damage.’’ He was “very sorry” about it.

Late on the morning of July 26, he was taken from jail to the mountains to show investigators exactly where he started the blaze.

That afternoon, a criminal complaint charging him with arson and the murder of Mr. and Mrs. George Kipp of Ahwahnee was filed at the Oakhurst Justice Court in the Grub Gulch Judicial District.

The next day, Fred was arraigned for arson and murder. District Attorney Lester Gendron announced that he would seek conviction for arson and double murder because “no matter what the youth’s intentions were, he set a fire and two persons died in it.”

Somewhere along the way, that fact got lost. On Dec. 18, 1961, Litke’s trial for the Harlow fire opened in Superior Court. There had been considerable discussion as to whether he should be tried in juvenile court or adult court, but since he had turned 18 before striking the match, Litke wound up in Superior Court, and a jury of 10 women and two men began hearing testimony.

On Dec. 19, 1961, Gendron came out with a strong case against Litke.

Prosecution witnesses piled on testimony and evidence that showed the jury that Frederick Litke of Mariposa set the Harlow fire.

Dist. Atty. Lester J. Gendron’s star witness testified just before noon. He was Frederick Litke’s uncle, a police officer from Taft.

He told the court that the boy admitted to him in the presence of law enforcement officers that he set the fire.

The boy’s uncle, Cecil Landbright, was at the Litke house when the authorities brought Fred in so that he could obtain clean clothing before going to the Madera County jail.

Gendron also had entered into evidence a signed confession from Litke in which he admitted setting the fire on July 10, which ravaged 43,000 acres of forest and brush land, destroyed the communities of Ahwahnee and Nipinnawasee, and took two lives.

Counsel for the defense, Attorney Herbert E. Bartow of Madera, continued to meet this and other evidence with a defense that Litke, a highly emotional youth, made the confession under duress.

At 1:25 p.m. on July 21, the jury came back with a not guilty verdict, but it wasn’t what we might have expected. The jury found Litke not guilty of “willfully and maliciously” setting the Harlow forest and brush fire. The unanimous verdict was returned following two hours of deliberation in which it was determined that extenuating circumstances prevailed in this case. Even if the boy were in some way responsible for the fire, (and the jury said he wasn’t) he had been unaware of the damage he could cause by starting it.

Frederick Litke didn’t stand trial in Superior Court for arson and murder; he stood trial for burning some trees and grass, and he was found innocent!

The pathway from the District Attorney’s charge of arson and two counts of murder in July to one of burning grass and trees in December is worth taking a look at, which we will do next time.

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