Crime - Sacto 911

Did this Forest Service employee set fire to his own truck? Jury can’t decide

A view looking east near Kyburz along Highway 50 in El Dorado county on Friday, November 22, 2013.
A view looking east near Kyburz along Highway 50 in El Dorado county on Friday, November 22, 2013. rbenton@sacbee.com

Federal prosecutors couldn’t get him for setting his U.S. Forest Service truck on fire, but the charges did stick Tuesday on Paul Leland Johnson that he lied about it.

In its sixth day of deliberations, a U.S. District Court jury in Sacramento hung on charges that the one-time USFS recreation technician torched his own truck on Feb. 3, 2012, on Mormon Emigrant Trail in the Eldorado National Forest, and that he obstructed justice when investigators zeroed in on him as a suspect. Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. declared a mistrial on both of those counts.

The panel, however, found Johnson, who is now 28, guilty on two counts of making materially false statements to investigators about the shifty circumstances of how and when he called in the fire.

Johnson faces five years in federal prison on each count at his Aug. 31 sentencing. Burrell set a status conference for June 30 to find out whether prosecutors plan to retry Johnson on the charges left hanging.

“It came down to reasonable doubt,” jury foreman Jerry Chapman said of the indecision over whether Johnson intentionally set the light-green, standard-issue USFS Ford F-150 on fire. “Nobody thought he was totally innocent.”

The problem of convicting Johnson of arson was in the proof. It would have helped, Chapman said, if the Forest Service hadn’t disposed of the truck that became a charred hulk on Johnson’s watch.

“Everybody had a bad taste about that,” Chapman said.

Johnson grew up in the Santa Cruz area and became a seasonal firefighter as a teenager, according to court papers filed by his attorneys, David W. Dratman and David D. Fischer. He got hired in 2009 as a full-time USFS “rec tech,” performing duties such as helping the public and writing tickets for unsafe campfires. His goal, he testified at trial, was to become a sworn USFS law enforcement officer.

Assistant U.S. attorneys Michael D. Anderson and Audrey B. Hemesath suggested a motive for the truck fire in their court filings. They said that Johnson “had not gotten the firefighting position he wanted with the Forest Service.”

The day of the fire, a carload of wintertime campers drove up on Johnson on the Mormon Emigrant Trail southeast of Pollock Pines and quickly noticed something was wrong with his truck: flames were dancing up out of its engine.

They offered to call in the fire for him, but he said there was no need, that he’d already done so – when, he later admitted in his trial testimony, he had not.

Once the campers drove away, Johnson videotaped the blaze on his cell phone.

When investigators questioned Johnson about the truck fire four days later, he told them, “I called dispatch to report that my vehicle was fully engulfed (when) a member of the public then pulled up.” This was the first statement the jury found to be materially false.

Eight months later, in Oct. 11, 2012, investigators again talked to him about the fire, and Johnson told them, according to the evidence, that he “had told witnesses at the scene that he would call for help” when he had not – another lie, in the jury’s mind.

The October interrogation followed another fiery circumstance in which Johnson found himself in the middle.

In the early morning hours of June 15, 2012, a warehouse at the Placerville Ranger Station caught fire as a result of a spontaneous combustion of linseed oil and rags that Johnson admittedly had used to clean some tools.

He said it was an accident. Federal prosecutors did not believe him, but they said in court papers they did not have enough evidence to prove he set it.

According to the prosecutors’ court papers, when Johnson showed up early for work the day of the blaze to watch firefighters put out the warehouse fire, one of the investigators told him that it sure seemed like a pattern was developing between him and suspicious fires.

“Yeah,” Johnson replied, according to a prosecution trial brief. And in a sarcastic retort, he added he liked to masturbate to “kiddie porn, too.”

At trial, Johnson, who is no longer with the USFS but is now a San Jose district director for the Boy Scouts of America, testified that the “immature” remark was only meant to reflect the outrageousness of the investigator’s insinuation.

Even though prosecutors did not charge him for the warehouse destruction, they were allowed to present evidence of it in the truck-fire case against Johnson.

“The government would have difficulty in this case telling the story of the vehicle fire without reference to the warehouse fire,” Anderson and Hemesath said in their trial brief. “This is because the Forest Service initially dubbed the vehicle fire an accident, did not probe or question the statements made at the scene of the vehicle fire, and only when the warehouse fire followed and Paul Johnson’s role in that fire became known did the agency look back to the vehicle fire and begin an arson investigation.”

Defense attorneys Dratman and Fischer said in their trial brief that Johnson “did not set the fire” in the truck.

They argued the vehicle hadn’t been used for as many as two weeks before Johnson took it out, and “if the fire occurred because of pine needles and other forest floor debris (ignited) in the engine compartment,” as the government suggests, “it is much more likely the debris was placed there by squirrels, rodents, or other wildlife building a nest.”

Jurors did not buy the squirrel-nesting explanation.

“That was b------t,” Chapman said.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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