Every year, the California wildfire season seems to get worse. The Jerusalem fire near Napa is getting dangerously close to homes, and the Rocky fire has burned about 70,000 acres. California's four-year drought is partly to blame, with much of the landscape covered in dry kindling. But in some cases, it is not only the dry brush to blame, but individuals intentionally setting fires. Now a suspect is in jail on suspicion of arson in as many as 30 fires here in Contra Costa County.
James William Wilson, 29, was arrested for allegedly setting fires in Contra Costa since as far back as April. While Wilson is facing eight counts of arson, some suspect he may be responsible for at least 30 fires, including fires along Highway 4, Highway 24 and Marsh Creek Road. He is in the county jail in Martinez with bail set at $1 million. This is the second serial arsonist arrested within days. Tracey Webb, 34, of Redding was arrested in connection to 14 fires.
Investigators found the high number of fires in Contra Costa suspicious, even considering the drought conditions. Then they noticed a pattern of small fire, which gradually got bigger. According to Contra Costa Fire Marshall Robert Marshall, “There were common elements of how the fire started. We cannot go into specifics because that is part of the investigation. But there were similarities both in the kinds of fires and the locations of fires.”
Controversially, investigators did not let the public know about the suspected arsonist, until they had gathered additional information. This could have placed local residents at risk of their lives or property, but according to Investigator Vic Massenkoff, they needed to make sure they had the right person before going forward with the arrest and public announcement.
Under the California Penal Code, arson involves a person willfully and maliciously setting fire to a structure, forest land or property. Forest land includes brush-covered land, forest, or grasslands. Arson is a felony, and the penalties depend on they type of property burned, and if there were any injuries.
Arson of forest land is generally punishable by two, four or six years. However, enhancements and aggravating factors can increase the penalties, including a prior arson conviction, injury to a firefighter, damage to 5 or more structures, and damage totalling more than $7 million. Another enhancement of the penalties may come as a result of Governor Jerry Brown declaring a state of emergency due to the wildfires.
Wilson, who was an Amtrak employee, may be facing some serious jail time because of the number of wildfires, and the enhancements. Those 30 fires were often started between midnight and 5 a.m., but thankfully did not burn any buildings. The fires affected Bay Point, Martinez, Concord, Pittsburg, Lafayette, Walnut Creek, Brentwood and Orinda.
Arson is a serious crime in California. With more than 30 years of experience defending people facing criminal crimes in the East Bay, Lynn Gorelick understands the laws and penalties involved. If you are arrested for arson, or attempted arson, you don't have to let your arrest end in a conviction. Contact a local East Bay DUI defense attorney who understands local criminal charges, prosecutors and the courts, and will make sure you get the justice you deserve.