The Public Eye

16 fires before the big one. Victims say Cal Fire waited too long to make arson arrest

Clayton Fire victims question why Cal Fire didn't arrest suspected arsonist earlier

Residents in Lake County wonder why it took Cal Fire so long to arrest an arson suspect accused of setting 16 fires before allegedly starting the catastrophic Clayton Fire last summer.
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Residents in Lake County wonder why it took Cal Fire so long to arrest an arson suspect accused of setting 16 fires before allegedly starting the catastrophic Clayton Fire last summer.

Cries of “String ’im up!” and “You’re going to hell!” erupted outside a Lake County casino on a smoky afternoon last summer, as state firefighters unveiled a poster-size mugshot of an arson suspect accused of burning hundreds of buildings two days before.

What arson investigators didn’t tell the crowd of Clayton Fire evacuees was how well they knew the suspect.

They had been closely tracking Damin Pashilk, 41, for two summers as he allegedly set at least 16 Lake County wildfires before the one that erupted in the town of Lower Lake on Aug. 13. One of the fires Pashilk is accused of setting destroyed a home less than a week earlier. Investigators had been tailing him so closely they called that fire in to local firefighters. It was the second time in three days that they had radioed in a fire Pashilk allegedly had set.

After those fires, a prosecutor was readying a search warrant in anticipation of arresting Pashilk, but state arson investigators didn’t put him in cuffs until two days after the devastating Clayton Fire erupted. The fire burned 300 buildings, torched nearly 4,000 acres of grass, brush and trees, and cost California taxpayers millions of dollars in firefighting expenses.

Pashilk has pleaded not guilty to 23 counts of arson and other charges, including a misdemeanor count of possessing methamphetamine. His Lakeport attorney, J. David Markham, didn’t return messages from The Sacramento Bee.

His preliminary hearing is scheduled for Nov. 1 in Lake County. The Lake County Sheriff’s Office says Pashilk was transferred to the Butte County Jail out of concerns Lake County inmates might hurt him.

As fire season arrives in California, Pashilk’s case illuminates an aspect of wildland firefighting that isn’t discussed publicly, but that’s common knowledge among arson investigators.

The people charged with setting California’s most destructive wildfires are often closely tracked by law enforcement as they set fire after fire. Experts say arsons are notoriously difficult to prosecute, so investigators often have no choice but to hold off on an arrest as they build a case. In a wildland arson, there are usually no witnesses and the fires burn away evidence. In those cases, prosecutors need a mountain of circumstantial evidence to persuade a jury.

And that, experts say, takes time. Sometimes even years.

“We have be very thorough to get that information to the DA to have a successful outcome of prosecution,” said Capt. Scott McLean, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “We need to make sure we have all the t’s crossed and all the i’s dotted.”

That’s little consolation to some in Lake County, where two straight summers of devastating wildfires burned huge swaths of land to ash.

Lower Lake residents wonder why it took a catastrophe before Cal Fire arrested Pashilk, a former inmate firefighter with a felony rap sheet whose Facebook page’s cover photo is “SS,” a symbol associated with white supremacist prison gangs.

“What defines ‘sufficient’ in ‘sufficient evidence’?” asked John Burnaford, whose home nearly burned down in the fire. “Arson is not a little thing. It’s ruined people’s lives around here. It’s not a perfect world. ... How many people are going to have to die because you don’t have a ‘perfect’ case – an airtight case – to get someone?”

Others, such as Michael Skidmore, whose home did burn down in the Clayton Fire, directly blame authorities for their woes.

“We’re kind of mad at the scorpion, but we are even more angry at the people who dropped him in our britches,” Skidmore said recently, standing outside his singed auto shop on Lower Lake’s main street. Skidmore has had to convert the shop’s office into a cramped living quarters that he now shares with his disabled wife, their teenage granddaughter and neighbors’ cats they rescued after the fire.

Their cats and dog died when their house burned down.

Cal Fire officials declined to comment on the timing of Pashilk’s arrest, citing the ongoing court case and an active investigation. The agency also declined to make an arson investigator available for an interview to discuss arson investigations in general. McClean, who works for the Cal Fire’s public information office in Sacramento, placed the blame solely on Pashilk.

“Who caused that fire allegedly? It’s Pashilk.” McClean said. “We are doing our best to get him prosecuted.”

Richard Hinchcliff, the chief deputy district attorney in Lake County overseeing the prosecution, also declined to discuss specifics about the case, but he said it’s not his call to decide when to arrest a suspect.

“The final decision on when to actually make an arrest is up to the the investigators – not the DA’s office,” he said.

Extensive surveillance

Detailed summaries of the state’s Clayton Fire investigation are attached to search warrants in Lake County Superior Court. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat and a few other media outlets obtained another investigative report last summer at Pashilk’s arraignment, but Cal Fire and Hinchcliff refused to release it to The Bee. The documents represent just a small fraction of the hundreds of pages of investigative files in Hinchcliff’s office.

The documents spell out how investigators homed in on Pashilk in 2015, after an unusual number of roadside fires that spring in Lake County made them suspect a serial arsonist was at work. Cal Fire investigators placed a number of hidden cameras along roadways to try to spot vehicles coming and going from fires.

The first of the fires Pashilk is now charged with setting occurred on July 2, 2015. A dark-colored Subaru station wagon was spotted on nearby cameras, which picked up the license plate number.

Investigators eventually tracked the car back to Pashilk’s home in Clear Lake, according to the investigation summary. A judge signed a search warrant that allowed Cal Fire to place a GPS tracker on the car. The tracking data and other surveillance was used to charge Pashilk with starting seven fires that summer. At one point, Cal Fire investigators said they spotted Pashilk driving in a van by a fire they alleged he had set earlier. They allege he was taking pictures of the smoldering scene from the backseat window.

The rash of road-side arson fires stopped when Pashlik was arrested Sept. 2, 2015, on a number of outstanding misdemeanor warrants, Cal Fire said.

Cal Fire pulled the GPS tracker from the station wagon in October when it started to rain outside and there was little chance a fire could ignite.

Investigators renewed their investigation the next summer. They drove by Pashilk’s house and spotted another car out front – a Chrysler Sebring. Three days later, on July 17, 2016, the Sebring was spotted on a camera driving away from another spot fire, Cal Fire alleges.

The investigators also kept tailing Pashilk in person. At one point, they said they watched him leave the Middletown casino where they would later hold a press conference announcing his arrest. The investigators tried to follow him, but he sped away, and they lost him. During the 13 minutes Pashilk was out of sight, a  1/2 -acre fire erupted along the route investigators say he took.

At the end of July, the investigators got a search warrant to put a GPS tracker on the Sebring.

On Aug. 7, an arson investigator followed the route Pashilk’s car took on the GPS tracker to a dirt road where a small fire was burning. The investigator called in the fire to local fire crews, as “a passing good Samaritan stopped and extinguished the active flanks of the fire,” according to a Cal Fire report.

Two days later, and less than a week before Cal Fire unveiled his mugshot to the angry crowd, investigators said they again watched Pashilk leave the casino to go start a fire. They arrived on scene, called firefighters and watched as the fire grew from 4 to 15 acres and torched an unoccupied home and an outbuilding before it was extinguished, according to Cal Fire’s reports.

Hinchcliff, the chief deputy district attorney, said he was drafting an “anticipatory” warrant to search Pashilk’s home because an arrest was likely coming soon.

“We were just starting to work on it – just in case,” he said.

That warrant, now filed in Lake County Superior Court, describes the Aug. 9 fire that burned the home but makes no mention of the Aug. 13 Clayton Fire.

Cal Fire’s investigative summary released at his arraignment says investigators were actively tailing Pashilk, both in person and using GPS, the day he allegedly started that fire, which would send hundreds of residents running for their lives.

An investigator allegedly watched him park in Lower Lake and spend two minutes looking back toward the fire’s point of origin.

He was arrested two days later.

‘Roll of the dice’

Independent arson experts who reviewed Cal Fire’s case summaries at the The Bee’s request said they couldn’t find any fault in how the investigation was handled.

“They were, I think, doing due diligence in collecting as much information as possible to put this guy away,” said John DeHaan, a forensic fire scientist and consultant based in Vallejo who wrote a textbook on fire investigation.

Retired state arson investigator Doug Allen said that before the Clayton Fire there were holes in Cal Fire’s case that a defense attorney might have used to get an acquittal.

“They could have arrested him,” said Allen who specialized in profiling serial arsonists in his 32 years with Cal Fire. “But they couldn’t have convicted him.”

He said Cal Fire’s reports show that investigators were at times unsure that Pashilk was actually driving the car, and at no point did investigators directly witness Pashilk start a fire.

Allen said no arson investigator wants to see a jury acquit a suspect because their case isn’t rock solid. An acquittal ensures the suspect will never be charged for those fires again.

And sometimes, Allen said, the suspect knows the rules as well as the firefighters.

There’s one notorious case in Southern California in which a suspect would drive by a fire captain’s house on his day off, wave at him and point to the column of smoke from the fire he just set, Allen said.

“It was just one of those in-your-face type of things,” he said.

State investigators alleged the suspect, Charles Raymond Phillips, had started more than 100 wildfires across San Diego County over two decades starting in the early 1980s.

Phillips was acquitted in 1981 of a single count of arson, according to a media account from the time.

He used what he learned at his trial to become a better arsonist, Allen said. After years with arson investigators on his tail, they eventually installed a hidden camera inside his vehicle that filmed him in the act of setting a fire.

Phillips pleaded guilty in 1996 to setting four of the 16 fires investigators alleged he set that year.

Allen said it can be maddening to wait for that kind of a break in a case. Investigators, he said, know all too well what the risks are.

“It’s a roll of the dice,” he said, “before he sets the big fire and kills somebody.”

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow