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Alleged arsonist agrees to plea deal


Man will face no less than four years for involuntary manslaughter


Charles Schuttloffel Sr., 36, spoke in low tones and cried as he entered his plea of no contest this afternoon in San Mateo County Superior Court. He has been incarcerated since March 12, 2007, on one count of arson and two counts of murder in connection with a May 4, 2004, fire that destroyed his home, located in a remote area on Seaside School Road.


The remains of Schuttloffel's two sons, Charles Edward "Charlie" Schuttloffel Jr., 3, and William Leonard "Billy" Schuttloffel, 2, were later found inside the home, according to the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office.


Deputy District Attorney Sean Gallagher entered the two charges of involuntary manslaughter today, and in return for Schuttloffel's plea, the previous charges were dropped.


Defense attorney Dek Ketchum said outside court that the case got off on the wrong foot from the beginning, and that there should never have been murder charges leveled against his client.


Ketchum said that Schuttloffel left the two young boys in a bedroom with a child security gate blocking the doorway while he was outside doing chores and packing up the car. The boys were playing with cardboard toy boxes from birthday presents and managed to get over

the gate, at which point they opened the door to the wood stove in the home, he said

But Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe dismissed the wood stove theory as "improbable," explaining that because both boys were found dead in their room, one of the boys would have had to set the fire and then climb back over the child security gate.


"If one of the boys' bodies had been found by the stove, from the beginning it would have been a very different consideration," Wagstaffe said.


Prosecutors ultimately proposed a plea bargain, because the defense had recently raised the slight possibility that the fire might have been caused by a small electrical appliance.


Fire investigators hired by the district attorney's office has initially ruled out every possibility for the cause of the fire and came to the conclusion that it must have been arson.


However, during a hearing on the case last month, an expert witness for the defense said that there were four small household appliances that burned in the fire, so there was no way to tell whether those had started the flames.


Due to the fact that there was a small chance that the fire was caused by an electrical malfunction, prosecutors decided to offer Schuttloffel a deal.


"This was going to be a close case anyway," Wagstaffe said. "There were concerns that we would not be able to get 12 people to agree on the case, and we decided this was a necessary conclusion."


Schuttloffel's wife, Lana, a schoolteacher who was not home when the fire took place, has maintained that her husband was not capable of committing the crime. The couple has a 4-year-old daughter.


Ketchum said that while Schuttloffel may have been careless in leaving the boys inside alone, the fire was clearly an accident, and the death of the boys was due to a lack of due caution, not a planned act.


Three witnesses were walking their dogs near the home at the time of the fire and saw smoke. Ketchum said they saw Schuttloffel "frantically trying to put out the flames."


Schuttloffel was injured in the fire and was restrained by sheriff's deputies as he tried to re-enter his home to save his children, the sheriff's office reported in 2004.


The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office indicated that although he became a suspect shortly after the fire, the arson investigation was lengthy, and Schuttloffel was not charged until three years later because much of the evidence in the case had been burned. Wagstaffe said that national investigators were brought in to look at the house.


Ketchum said that Schuttloffel feels vindicated by the outcome of the case, but he accepts that his children died while he was supposed to be watching them.


In a case like this, "you are going to live with it for the rest of your life," Ketchum said.


Schuttloffel, who remains in custody without bail, is scheduled to be sentenced June 27.