Former Professor Is Indicted in ‘Arson Spree’ in California
A former university professor has been indicted on charges that he set four wildfires in national forests while on an “arson spree” in California this summer, prosecutors said.
The former professor, Gary Stephen Maynard, 47, was charged with four counts of arson to federal property, the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, Phillip A. Talbert, announced on Thursday. Some of the fires were ignited behind firefighters as they worked to extinguish the flames of the Dixie fire, which consumed more than 960,000 acres as one of the largest wildfires in California history.
According to a copy of the indictment, Mr. Maynard is accused of having set the Cascade and Everitt fires in July and the Ranch and Conard fires in August. He has also been charged with setting timber ablaze, according to the indictment, which was filed on Thursday.
The fires were in the vicinity of the Dixie fire, in areas of the Shasta Trinity National Forest and the Lassen National Forest. The fires were extinguished before they could destroy any buildings.
If convicted, Mr. Maynard faces a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count of arson.
He is being held in Sacramento County Main Jail, and his arraignment is scheduled to be held virtually on Nov. 22, said Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“Mr. Maynard has consistently denied the allegations and he will enter a formal plea of not guilty at his hearing next week,” Hannah Labaree, a lawyer for Mr. Maynard, said in a phone interview on Friday.
In California, about 10 percent of wildfires every year are set on purpose, according to Cal Fire, the state’s largest fire agency.
The number of arson arrests jumped last year, with 120 arrests reported by Cal Fire in 2020, compared with 70 in 2019.
Before the indictment was handed down, Mr. Maynard had been charged in a criminal complaint with “willfully setting fire to land owned by or under the jurisdiction of the United States.” That document, filed in August, described how Mr. Maynard was tracked down and tied to some of the fires set near one of the state’s largest conflagrations.
On July 20, a person riding a mountain bike called 911 to report seeing smoke on the western slope of Mount Shasta, according to the complaint. Firefighters put it out before it could spread to more than 200 square feet, the complaint said.
An arson investigator who went to the area found a man later identified as Mr. Maynard trying to free his car from a deep rut, and found burned newspaper and a match at the site, the document said.
Mr. Maynard, who was an adjunct faculty member at Santa Clara University from September 2019 to December 2020, and who had also taught criminology and sociology at Chapman and Sonoma State Universities, was living out of his vehicle at the time, the document said.
On July 21, a fire crew on the Everitt Memorial Highway spotted the glow of another fire on the western slope of Mount Shasta, about an hour south of the Oregon border, the filing said. It was contained to less than an acre in size, it said. An investigator noticed that the tire marks in the dirt were similar to the impressions at the previous fire, it said.
Investigators eventually tracked down Mr. Maynard by using his food stamp transactions, phone records and a device they attached to his car in the parking lot of a restaurant, the document said.
On Aug. 7, Mr. Maynard’s vehicle was found in Lassen National Forest, where prosecutors say he set two fires, about three miles apart, that grew to half an acre to one acre in size before being extinguished, the complaint said.
It appeared that Mr. Maynard “was in the midst of an arson-setting spree,” the complaint said. He was arrested on suspicion of unauthorized entry into a closed emergency area. When agents told him that his tire tracks were found near wildfires, he “denied setting any fires,” the complaint said.
In a memorandum requesting that Mr. Maynard be kept in detention, Mr. Talbert wrote that “words cannot describe” the additional risk that the fires posed to the firefighters, and he noted how difficult it would be to keep tracking Mr. Maynard.
“Where Maynard went, fires started,” Mr. Talbert wrote. “Not just once, but over and over again.”