Former College Professor Accused Of Setting Wildfires In California
"Where [Gary] Maynard went, fires started. Not just once, but over and over again," the government said in a court memorandum.
Updated August 11, 2021 at 5:39 PM ET
Firefighters battling the Dixie Fire have also been facing a second enemy: a serial arsonist who went on a spree of setting fires in July and August — and who sought to trap fire crews with his fires, according to agents from the U.S. Forest Service. They allege former college professor Gary Maynard is the culprit, citing their tracking of his movements and other evidence.
"Where Maynard went, fires started. Not just once, but over and over again," the government said in a court memorandum arguing for Maynard to be denied bail.
A judge agreed to that request during a brief hearing Wednesday, saying there are no "conditions or combination of conditions that would provide the necessary level of safety to this community should the defendant be released."
He added: "Based on that finding, the defendant will be detained as a risk of non-appearance and a danger to the community."
Maynard's next court appearance is scheduled for Aug. 24, a representative of the U.S. attorney's office in Sacramento told NPR.
While court documents allege that Maynard is connected to more than a half-dozen dangerous fires in Northern California, he is currently charged with starting only the Ranch Fire. That blaze broke out on Saturday morning in a remote area where, according to court records, Maynard had just camped for the night. It's one of three fires that officials said Maynard set in recent days — all of them close to the Dixie Fire's northeastern footprint.
"He entered the evacuation zone and began setting fires behind the first responders fighting the Dixie fire," the U.S. attorney's office in Sacramento said in court papers. It added, "Maynard's fires were placed in the perfect position to increase the risk of firefighters being trapped between fires."
Maynard's alleged offenses "show that he is particularly dangerous, even among arsonists," the federal prosecutors said.
If it weren't for the surveillance federal agents were conducting on Maynard, the fires would have been much worse and the risk to firefighters would have been greater, the document said.
Maynard was identified after his car got stuck near a fire, court records say
Maynard, 47, is a former professor who has taught at colleges in New York and California, according to online records. Last fall, he taught in the criminology and criminal justice department at Sonoma State University, which says in its official bio for Maynard that he has a doctorate in sociology and three master's degrees.
His teaching and research, the school said, focuses on topics that include the "sociology of health, deviance and crime" and environmental sociology. Maynard also has connections to other schools, from Stony Brook University in New York (where he received his doctorate) to Santa Clara University, where he also taught.
On July 20, Maynard was spotted near the scene of the Cascade Fire, on the western slopes of Mount Shasta. A mountain biker in those remote woods had noticed signs of a fire, called 911 and then worked to limit the fire's spread.
A Forest Service fire investigator determined the Cascade Fire was likely the result of arson. He also noticed that on a dirt road 150 to 200 yards from the fire, a man was struggling to free his car, a black Kia Soul, after the vehicle's rear had failed to clear a partially buried boulder.
A witness told investigators that the man, later identified as Maynard, had arrived several hours before the fire started, court records show. The witness said the man had walked off in the direction of where the fire eventually ignited, returning around 10 minutes later. After the man returned, the witness recalled, smoke from the Cascade Fire became visible.
The investigator kept his distance from Maynard, citing the man's "uncooperative and agitated behavior." But he took a picture of his car, and the license plate number led to Maynard. Forest Service agents also measured and recorded data about the tire tread pattern left by Maynard's car — evidence that they say ties him to a string of arson wildfires.
Tracking an arson suspect
In an affidavit requesting an arrest warrant for Maynard, U.S. Forest Service Special Agent Tyler Bolen said he used a variety of means to learn more about the arson suspect, from internet searches that turned up his ties to colleges to inquiries with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA, Bolen says, confirmed that Maynard had an Electronic Benefits Transfer account. Tracing his use of the card at grocery stores, the Forest Service was able to place Maynard close to the time and place where a number of fires were set, according to Bolen's affidavit.
The EBT account showed Maynard made purchases at a Safeway in Fortuna, along California's coast, on July 18, and then, a week later, at a Safeway store in Susanville — some 260 miles inland across the state, just east of the Lassen National Forest where the Dixie Fire erupted in mid-July, the affidavit said.
Since Maynard's car was registered in San Jose, Bolen also contacted the San Jose Police Department, which passed along a 2020 warning from a colleague who had reported her concern for Maynard's well-being, citing a severe mental health crisis. Crucially, the police agency shared Maynard's cellphone number, which was later confirmed to be linked to his EBT account, according to the affidavit.
Part of "an arson-setting spree"
Investigators said they've connected Maynard to a string of fires in Northern California, as early as the Bradley Fire that destroyed over 300 acres on July 11, and possibly as early as the Sweetbriar Fire on July 6. Both of those blazes struck in the Mount Shasta area, northwest of the Lassen National Forest where the Dixie Fire is still raging.
In recent days, authorities said, Maynard set numerous fires in the Lassen area — part of "an arson-setting spree," Bolen said.
In late July, Forest Service agents grew so concerned about Maynard's actions that they also asked Verizon Wireless for 15-minute updates on his location, 24 hours a day. Eventually, an agent also installed a tracker on Maynard's car, according to Bolen's affidavit.
Agents used that data to follow along behind Maynard, putting out several fires and gathering evidence that could link him to the blazes. Investigators also obtained warrants requiring Verizon Wireless to preserve evidence from Maynard's cellphone account that could show his movements and activity.
On Saturday, Lassen County sheriff's deputies arrested Maynard after a California Highway Patrol officer initially pulled him over for driving in an emergency closure area.
Maynard denies starting the fires
After his arrest, Maynard told Forest Service agents he had not started any fires. He was then booked into the Lassen County Jail on a charge of violating a state law that forbids entering a closed emergency area. But later Saturday, a deputy told him that a federal felony arson charge was being added. An angry Maynard insisted that he is innocent.
"I'm going to kill you, f***ing pig! I told those f***ers I didn't start any of those fires!" he said to the deputy, according to the affidavit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California.
Maynard was later transferred to Sacramento County's jail. He had a brief court appearance by video Tuesday, followed by his detention hearing on Wednesday.
In the days before he was taken into custody, Maynard allegedly set the Moon Fire on Aug. 5, as well as the Ranch and Conard fires, which both ignited on Saturday, according to Bolen's affidavit.
Maynard now faces federal charges of setting fire to land that's owned by the U.S. or is under its jurisdiction.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.