For 16 days, as law enforcement hunted former Cal Fire battalion chief Orville “Moe” Fleming from Canada to Mexico, the 55-year-old murder suspect was literally hiding under a bush not far from the scene of the crime.
In a bizarre finish to a saga that has captivated the region since Fleming allegedly stabbed his live-in girlfriend to death on May 1 and fled, Fleming was arrested Friday around midday by a detective who spotted him after he left his hiding place and set off in search of food.
It was hardly the perfect plan.
“He did the kind of fleeing equivalent of curling up in the fetal position, and we found him,” Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones said Friday night at a news conference to announce the arrest.
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Jones and homicide Detective Brian Meux said Fleming gave up without incident and that he was not armed, as officials had feared. Instead, he said he didn’t want a fight, gave up and later told detectives he was responsible for killing 26-year-old Sarah Douglas, officials said.
“He admitted culpability in the stabbing of Ms. Douglas and gave a full statement in that regard,” the sheriff said.
The Fleming family and an acquaintance of the victim both said they were relieved at the news.
“That’s uplifting, that’s very uplifting,” said Nick Mitrick, a 29-year-old man who said he is the father of Douglas’ 5-year-old son.
Fleming had been on the run for more than two weeks following the discovery of Douglas’ body in the south area home she shared with Fleming.
Authorities believe Fleming killed Douglas after she returned home just before midnight on April 30 from a trip to a casino with her sister and her mother.
Court documents indicate Douglas called her sister a short time after being dropped off at home and that the sister subsequently heard arguing and then a scream from Douglas over the phone.
The next morning, her sister found Douglas dead inside the blood-spattered home with a bed sheet tied around her neck.
Fleming had vanished and his truck was later found abandoned in Elk Grove. Jones said detectives had obtained surveillance video early on of Fleming filling the gas tank of his California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection truck at a gas station the night of the slaying, leading them to believe he was preparing to flee.
Instead, Fleming abandoned the truck and found a spot in south Sacramento County with dense foliage that he hid under as intense searches took place.
“We searched extensively in that area using technology, using helicopters, using canines, using officers,” Jones said.
Despite all that effort, Friday’s arrest came down to “good old-fashioned police work,” Jones said.
It began with a detective from the department’s fugitive team again canvassing the area and spotting a man who resembled Fleming getting on a bus in the south part of the county, Meux said.
That detective called for help and followed the bus, where he confronted the man as he disembarked near Cosumnes River College.
“It is a scenario where he was basically hidden in plain sight,” Meux said. “It was clear when we met with him that he has been out in the elements for some period of time.
“He was very cooperative with the detective. He said he wasn’t wanting to make a scene. He realized the jig was up at that time.”
Fleming, who is being held in the Sacramento County jail on an open count of murder, had shaved off his mustache but had done little else to disguise himself, Meux said.
He was not using a cellphone or credit cards and had no weapons or help from anyone else, officials said.
Instead, he was using cash to occasionally venture out for water and food and, once, to go to a thrift store for a change of clothes.
Fleming told detectives he could hear the helicopter searches and could hear people not far from his hiding place. His downfall Friday may have been the heat; Meux said Fleming decided it was too hot to walk and decided to take a bus to get food when he was spotted.
Authorities had launched a statewide manhunt for Fleming, warning that he may have been in possession of two handguns as well as keys from his Cal Fire post that would have given him access to department facilities statewide and the ability to open gates blocking fire trails.
Cal Fire dismissed Fleming from his $130,000-a-year job on May 8 after he did not show up for work for five days in a row.
“Obviously, we had been supporting the sheriff throughout this case in any way we can, and we notified our employees to make sure they were on the lookout for Mr. Fleming,” Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said. “With today’s apprehension, we are very pleased that it’s over.”
The saga took a tawdry turn as Fleming’s estranged wife told reporters that she had seen a video recording of Douglas having sex with firefighters on firetrucks and that Douglas had been harassing her.
But Meux said Fleming indicated there was no such tape, that at its heart the case was a domestic violence incident that resulted in murder.
Fleming’s estranged wife, Meagan Fleming, sought a temporary restraining order against Douglas, a former escort who advertised her services on a sexually explicit website, in November, one month after her husband filed for divorce.
Meagan Fleming asked for “orders to stop harassment” but the petition was denied.
On Friday morning, Meagan Fleming was staying with her sister, Kelly Cameron, at her home in Roseville in an attempt to get some relief from the stress of the situation.
“She has been with me the last two days in hiding just trying to get some relief,” Cameron said, adding that Meagan Fleming left to return to the Clovis area Friday morning but got a call on the road from sheriff’s officials telling her that Orville Fleming had been captured.
“Everybody’s happy he’s been found alive, and for the man that most of us knew for 35 years, he was very loving” until the recent events, she said.
Despite Douglas’ history as an escort, Mitrick said such ventures were in the past and that she had moved in with Fleming in anticipation of them getting married.
“She had it hard, she didn’t have the best influences in her life,” he said. “It’s shocking the way this all went.”
Mitrick, who said he has custody of Douglas’ son, decried the focus by some media outlets on Douglas’ past. He said he still has not told his son about his mother’s fate and is wrestling with how to handle it.
“That’s a tough question,” he said. “It’s kind of a thing you want to hide from him as long as possible, wait for the appropriate time. But there’s never an appropriate time.”