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California

Sonoma homeless man accused of arson but no link so far to massive wine country wildfires

Devastating wildfires in Northern California
A member of a search and rescue crew follows a cadaver dog as he searches for a possible victim of the wildfires.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times )

Jesus Fabian Gonzalez lived in a homeless encampment beneath the Verano Avenue bridge, spanning Sonoma Creek, just a few hundred yards from a cluster of fast-food restaurants and mom-and-pop shops.

He cut an eccentric figure, occasionally seen racing around in a small bicycle, zigzagging in circles in parking lots. Other homeless people knew the diminutive Gonzalez, who sported a shaved head, by his nickname: Oaxaca.

On Sunday afternoon, Gonzalez, 29, was arrested on suspicion of felony arson and booked at the Sonoma County Jail.

“He was screaming really bad things at the police when he was arrested,” recalled David Moreno, 29, who witnessed the arrest. “He was yelling things like, ‘I’m going to teach you a lesson you’ll never forget.’”

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Gonzalez is being held in lieu of $110,000, according to Sonoma County booking records — $10,000 for the felony arson charge, and $100,000 for a bench warrant issued in Ventura County.

Gonzalez was scheduled to be arraigned Monday in a county jail facility because the courts were closed due to the wildfires in California’s wine country. The arraignment was closed to the public and media.

Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano on Tuesday afternoon tried to tamp down speculation that Gonzalez was responsible for the fires that have killed more than 40 people in Northern California and destroyed thousands of homes.

“There is no indication that he is responsible for these fires,” Giordano said.

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Websites Breitbart and InfoWars linked Gonzalez’s arrest to the deadly wildfires.

Breitbart reported, “The U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) issued a detainer request on the Sonoma County Jail for Jesus Fabian Gonzalez, who was arrested Sunday on suspicion of arson in Wine Country fires that have killed at least 40 residents.”

Apparently responding to those stories, the Sacramento Bee quoted the sheriff as saying:

“There is a story out there that he’s the arsonist in these fires. That’s not the case. There’s no indication he’s related to these fires at all. ... I wanted to kill that speculation right now, so we didn’t have things running too far out of control.”

Three Sonoma County probation officers patrolling Maxwell Farms Regional Park just before 3 p.m. Sunday noticed a plume of smoke rising from an area near the Sonoma Creek, Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Misti Harris said.

Gonzalez walked away from the fire as the officers approached, Harris said.

“Nobody else was in the area,” Harris said.

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department deputies followed Gonzalez to a nearby McDonald’s. Gonzalez had “previous contacts” with law enforcement, she said.

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Gonzalez told police he started the fire because he was cold, Harris said. Officers found a lighter in his pocket.

Some homeless people who knew Gonzalez said that he had a habit of setting fire to brush along the creek bed.

Tensions were already high in this smoke-filled region, about 25 miles east of Santa Rosa.

Local mechanic Shawn Stephensen, 40, said, “A few days ago I was walking down the street with a gas can and someone driving by stopped to say, ‘I wouldn’t be carrying a thing like that around at a time like this.’

“At first I didn’t get it,” Stephensen, who knew Gonzalez, said. “Then it dawned on me — ‘Oh yeah, instant felony case.’”

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

Twitter: @LouisSahagun

laura.nelson@latimes.com

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Twitter: @laura_nelson


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