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California

Man who set five wildfires in San Diego’s back-country gets 9 years in prison

Jonathan Cohen appears in court during his arson trial.
Jonathan Cohen appears in court during his arson trial.
(J. Harry Jones / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A Poway man convicted in August of setting a series of small fires alongside semi-rural roads after gambling at local casinos has been sentenced to nine years and four months in prison.

Jonathan Cohen, 45, who investigators believe has been setting wildfires in San Diego’s backcountry for years, was convicted of starting five fires along Lake Wohlford Road in Valley Center, Wildcat Canyon Road in Lakeside and Highway 67 in 2014 and 2015.

None of the fires grew large, but investigators — who had suspected Cohen of being an arsonist for more than a year before his arrest — called him one of the most dangerous people in the county because of the catastrophic consequences his actions could have caused.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Andrew Aguilar said Cohen showed no emotion when sentenced by Superior Court Judge Evan Kirvin on Friday in El Cajon.

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The prosecutor told the jury during the trial that Cohen would go to the Barona Resort & Casino in Lakeside and the Valley View Casino & Hotel in Valley Center to gamble, then start fires on his way home.

“Fire seemed to follow the defendant wherever he went,” Aguilar said.

A jail informant testified that Cohen had told him he hated the casinos and wanted to see them burn.

Secret video and still cameras placed along the roads recorded images of Cohen’s cars traveling on the roads within minutes of a fire breaking out. But there were no eyewitnesses to the crimes, a fact Cohen’s lawyer repeated to the jury. 

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A search of Cohen’s home revealed a number of odd items that the prosecutor said showed Cohen had been experimenting with various homemade arson devices.

Though Cohen was charged with starting five fires, the prosecutor presented evidence linking him to a total of eight. In documents prepared before his arrest, investigators said they suspected Cohen was responsible for dozens or even hundreds more blazes.

All the fires discussed in court were extinguished quickly, either by firefighters or citizens.

jharry.jones@sduniontribune.com

Jones writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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