61-year-old James T. Raymond was apparently eager to get out of jail. He had a lot to accomplish that night, and wasted no time getting it done.
During the days leading up to the 4th of July, the Santa Rosa police and fire departments are on high alert. All manner of personal fireworks are illegal in town, but people still love to bring them in, either the totally illegal kinds brought in from out of state, or the commercial “safe and sane” fireworks sold in stands that are legal in neighboring towns like Petaluma and Rohnert Park. But as it turned out, it wasn’t fireworks that gave them the most trouble in the days leading up to the 4th, it was a series of five grass and vegetation fires set between June 29 and July 2 in northwest Santa Rosa.
According to Sergeant Josh Ludtke of the Santa Rosa Police, Fire Department investigators looked into the blazes, which were all set in areas near homes and apartment buildings. They were able to determine that they had been set deliberately using an “open source flame” – in other words a match or lighter. After a one day break in the occurrences, they accelerated on Independence Day when a total of four fires were detected that day in the area near Marlow and Guerneville Roads, near the Safeway Supermarket and James Monroe Elementary School. They were all set in the early morning hours between midnight and 4:00 am.
This time, however, a suspect was spotted in the area, and the same person was seen by responding firefighters. Santa Rosa police were contacted, and as the fire department personnel contacted the man, they saw him toss away a lighter. Police Property Crimes detectives arrived, and detained the suspect, while they also contacted the witness who had seen the same man in one of the burned fields. He was identified as James T. Raymond, a 61-year-old man who lived in an apartment in the area.
Raymond was booked into the Sonoma County Jail for arson on Saturday, July 4. He spent three days in custody before he was released with a promise to appear in court, at 8 pm Tuesday, July 7. He was apparently on foot, and about 3 miles from his home when he left the Adult Detention Facility in north Santa Rosa, on Ventura Avenue near Bicentennial Way. Over the next four hours he appears to have walked along Bicentennial westbound, and at some point acquired a lighter or matches (assuming none was returned to him upon leaving the jail.)
Raymond made his way to Piner Road and proceeded West to Marlow, the street where he lives. Still a mile and a half from his home, he stopped in front of the Walgreens store, and at just before midnight, set a grass fire in the dry grass near the store. While that fire burned, and the fire department responded, Raymond headed further down the road. When he reached James Monroe Elementary, about a half hour later, he lit the grass outside of the school.
He continued homeward, but likely went into hiding for a while, while fire crews responded, and police combed the area. When he was near his home, at the corner of Marlow and Jennings, he lit the third fire of the night, which was reported at 3:38 am.
What may seem like a no-brainer for the property crimes detectives and arson investigators still needed evidence, so the team made a thorough investigation into the incidents, most likely to insure it wasn’t the work of a copycat arson. The “smoking gun” came in a surveillance video from one of the nearby businesses, which clearly showed Raymond near the Walgreens fire at the time. A warrant was issued, and on Friday, July 10 he was spotted on foot at 9 pm near his home. He was arrested and questioned by detectives, and admitted to setting at least one of the fires.
He was booked back into the Sonoma County Jail, with bail set at $50,000. A total of 13 fires were set during the June 29 to July 8 time frame, and none while Raymond had been in custody. The actual damage was minor – mostly just dried grass singed black, though the danger was quite high due to the presence of a lot of dry vegetation due to the drought restrictions, and the proximity of a number of business and residential structures.
Anyone who may have additional information about this case is encouraged to call Detective Holzapel at 707-543-4092. This series of arsons was the only known incident of that nature for James Raymond. A mental health examination will be conducted as part of his incarceration and subsequent hearings.