Sonoma sheriff shoots down right-wing reports linking arson suspect to wine country fires

‘What are we going to do with people who no longer have a home?’

Ana Lugo, president of housing advocacy group North Bay Organizing Project, said on Oct. 14, 2017 that many of those displaced by the Wine Country fires need housing and protection.
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Ana Lugo, president of housing advocacy group North Bay Organizing Project, said on Oct. 14, 2017 that many of those displaced by the Wine Country fires need housing and protection.

The arrest of a 29-year-old Latino man this weekend on suspicion of starting a small fire in California’s scorched wine country ignited a firestorm of its own on right-wing media sites whose articles linked him – without evidence – to the catastrophic fires that have killed at least 28 people in the area.

Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano forcefully shot down the allegations at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

“There is a story out there that he’s the arsonist in these fires,” Giordano said. “That’s not the case. There’s no indication he’s related to these fires at all. ... I wanted to kill that speculation right now, so we didn’t have things running too far out of control.”

Right-wing websites including Breitbart and InfoWars Tuesday each published stories on the Sunday arrest of Jesus Fabian Gonzales, whom sheriff’s deputies arrested on a single count of arson.

“The U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) issued a detainer request on the Sonoma County Jail for Jesus Fabian Gonzalez (sic), who was arrested Sunday on suspicion of arson in Wine Country fires that have killed at least 40 residents,” says the lead paragraph of stories published on both InfoWars and Breitbart.

The websites cited a story in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat about the arrest. That story does not link Gonzales to any of the fires that broke out in the middle of the night on Oct. 8, some of them hours away in Mendocino and Yuba counties.

Gonzales was arrested at Maxwell Farms Regional Park in Sonoma on Sunday afternoon after he was seen leaving a creek bed with a plume of smoke rising behind him, Giordano said.

The fire was so small a responding sheriff’s deputy was able to mostly put it out before firefighters arrived, according to the Press Democrat. Gonzales, who was reportedly wearing a trench coat, was carrying a lighter and fire extinguisher, Giordano said.

Gonzales often sleeps in the park and is well-known to law enforcement, Giordano said.

“They asked him if he started the fire, and he said he started the fire to warm himself up,” Giordano said.

There’s no evidence linking him to any other fires, whose cause remains under investigation, Giordano said.

Gonzales was arraigned at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. He’s also being held at the Sonoma County jail on a $100,000 warrant out of Ventura County, Giordano said.

Gonzales’ arraignment was held inside the jail because the courthouse is closed due to the fires, a spokeswoman for the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office said.

She declined to comment on Gonzales’ immigration status. Breitbart’s story says it confirmed with the sheriff’s office that his jailers have sought a federal immigration hold.

Despite a lack of evidence linking Gonzales to any other fires, Breitbart’s readers were quick to jump to conclusions.

“How many more innocent Californians must die on the alter of democrat immigration polices?” reads the top comment on the Breitbart story, which has been widely shared on social media. “Why do they continue to return the same anti American politicians to office at the risk of their very lives? If there is one democrat California voter who reads this post I’d love to get into your empty head and learn what makes you hate yourself.”

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