The Valley Fire that hit Lake County this month has burned almost 76,000 acres, destroyed over 1,000 structures, and threatened over 3500 homes. Small communities like Middletown have been hit especially hard, losing entire neighborhoods and leaving most residents homeless. Over 4,000 firefighters have been working hard on controlling the fire, and it stands at 70% contained as of today. Four firefighters have been injured, and three civilian fatalities have been reported. This follows the Jerusalem fire that began earlier this summer in the same area. With frequent evacuations and residents making use of the Red Cross centers set up at Grace Church in Kelseyville and the Napa County Fairgrounds, along with shelters at the Highland Senior Center in Clearlake and Twin Pine Casino in Middletown, the community has banded together to help each other through the devastation. That feeling of shared sacrifice and camaraderie can be challenged as “predators” move in to take advantage of people already suffering.
One such incident happened a week ago, on Monday, September 14. According to Steve Brooks of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, a deputy was patrolling Highway 175 in Whispering Pines, a small community south of Cobb and north of Middletown. The area had been subject to mandatory evacuations and the roads closed to all but emergency vehicles. The deputy, however, noticed a car in the area, not only with its hazard lights flashing, but covered in the pink flame retardant material dropped from the aircraft that have been helping fight the fires.
As the deputy approached the vehicle, the driver took off up Maple Shadows Road, which is a winding path leading into the woods and several properties just south of the Whispering Pines resort. The deputy gave chase, and caught up a couple of turns in, at Parnassus Drive. The driver was Steven F. Worley, a local resident whom the deputy recognized as someone they’d dealt with before. Worley exited the vehicle, and was wearing a yellow rain jacket, and a blue baseball hat with a California Highway Patrol badge emblem. When asked what he was doing in the area, Worley said he was trying to find something at his mother’s house. Worley lives just north of the Whispering Pines resort, just few blocks from where he was found.
The deputy also asked why he was wearing an official CHP hat, and Worley nervously replied that a friend had given it to him – he had a bunch of hats in the trunk. Worley also gave permission for the deputy to search the car. The search by the deputy turned up six cell phones, a portable wi-fi hotspot, and a Apple iPod. There was also a wallet stashed under the front seat showing signs of fire damage, but the ID inside was clearly not Worley’s. There was also a safe in the backseat with an electronic keypad, which was locked. Worley said is was another item “given to him by a friend”. He couldn’t tell the deputy anything more about it. But there was also in the car an envelope with 13 obsidian points – native American artifacts Worley claimed to have found along a creek.
When pressed further about being in an active fire zone, Worley said no one had told him he had to leave. He was arrested and charged with petty theft during a state of emergency, wearing identification to impersonate an officer, and removing artifacts of historic interest. He was booked at the County jail at 5:45 pm, with bail set at $110,000.00.
Three days later, on Thursday September 17, a deputy patrolling the evacuation area late at night around Hidden Valley Lake, an area also north of Middletown, but along Highway 29 to the east, spotted another suspicious vehicle. The deputy was parked in an area northeast of the lake, at Spruce Grove Road and Jerusalem Grade, in an effort to enforce the evacuation orders for the area. He saw a white Toyota Tacoma pickup truck with a camper shell drive past with three men inside. The deputy pulled over the truck and contacted the three men.
The driver, 23-year-old Dyami Gene Connell and front passenger, 28-year-old Michael James Jimenez, were both dressed in camouflage clothing, and the back seat passenger, David Michael Cesari, 23, was dressed all in black. The three were all from the Bay Area; Connell and Jimenez from Brisbane, just south of San Francisco, and Cesari from San Francisco. They said they were headed up Jerusalem Grade to get fuel on their way to Lower Lake. The deputy pressed them on their planned route, and could tell they didn’t know the area. He also smelled marijuana wafting from the cab, and asked if the men were carrying any drugs or weapons. They told him they were not.
But the deputy had enough probable cause to search the vehicle, and let them know he was going to do just that. He asked Cesari to step out, and upon searching him, the deputy located a loaded .40 caliber magazine tucked into his jacket pocket. He asked where the gun was, and Cesari said it was tucked into his waistline in the back. The loaded firearm was indeed found on him. With the help of back-up deputies, he continued the search of the vehicle, locating a face-concealing mask, three pairs of gloves, hand tools, headlamps, flashlights, binoculars, plastic ziplock bags and trash bags, a backpack and some large knives – the perfect outfit for burglarizing some houses while no one was around. The wheels of the truck were also caked with mud – evidence that the group had been bypassing closed roads and driving through private property.
The men claimed to be living at a place on Black Bass Pass, a road off of Spruce Grove Road just north of Hidden Valley Lake, but there was no evidence or records available to support that. They also claimed they had not been burglarizing residences, but a Napa County deputy, in the area to support Lake County, told the others that the vehicle had been seen the night before in Cobb while some homes had been burglarized. The three were arrested and booked for entering a closed disaster area, and criminal conspiracy. Cesari was also charged with having and carrying a concealed, unregistered weapon and ammunition, and possession of burglary tools. Bail for all three was set at $100,000.
Later that night, at 9:05 pm, a deputy on patrol in Loch Lomond, another small town off Highway 175 just north of Cobb, stopped a black and white 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee driving through the evacuated area. When the deputy approached the driver, it became clear that the vehicle had been painted – so recently that it was still sticky to the touch. The deputy spoke to the man in the car, a local resident from Cobb, 25-year-old Jeremiah Patrick McGinnis of Cobb. When asked about the curious state of the vehicle, McGinnis admitted he had done the paint job to make it look like a law enforcement vehicle so he could travel within the evacuated area.
But in addition to the deceptive paint job, the deputy also saw that the steering column ignition switch had been “punched”, and there were numerous tools and flashlights inside. A records check revealed that the Jeep belonged to a resident of Lower Lake, about 8 miles away up Highway 137, or Seigler Canyon Road. The home is also in an evacuated area, about 3/4 of a mile off of the road. The Jeep also had a load of cargo inside – a flat screen TV, DVD player, a box of live ammunition, an air rifle and air pistol, and a drill. There was also a box of spray paint McGinnis had used to color the vehicle, and a crate of aerosol can solvents and a box of matches – sensitive items in the current disaster area.
A check of the home where the Jeep came from revealed an unoccupied residence with evidence of a recent burglary. McGinnis, on probation for a drug offense conviction, was arrested for vehicle theft, burglary, possession of burglary tools, entering a closed disaster area, burglary during a state of emergency, and being a prohibited person in possession of ammunition. He was booked at the Hill Road Correctional Facility with bail set at $300,000.00.
The Lake County Sheriff’s office announced today that a total of 32 property crimes like these have been identified since the disastrous fires and evacuations have begun. This means that in addition to supporting the local and visiting fire crews, and helping residents safely evacuate their homes and return when safe, the Sheriff’s Department, along with the local police departments, highway patrol, and additional supporting law enforcement agencies have to spend valuable time chasing down criminals trying to take advantage of the misfortunes of the residents.
As the Valley Fire has now been called the state’s third most destructive fire in its history, Sheriff’s Department officials have made it clear “Looters are not welcome here!”