Mercury News: Palo Alto scientist pleads not guilty to setting Shasta fire that has claimed 41 homes
By Lisa M. Krieger | Bay Area News Group
A Palo Alto woman has pleaded not guilty to arson charges in connection with Shasta County’s Fawn Fire that has destroyed 41 homes and 90 smaller structures and is threatening thousands more.
Alexandra Souverneva, a 30-year-old graduate of the California Institute of Technology and former Bay Area biotech employee, entered the plea to the felony charges during a Friday arraignment in that county’s Superior Court. She could face up to nine years in state prison if convicted.
Facing a crowd of angry and displaced Shasta County residents at a community meeting on Saturday night, Shasta County Sheriff Michael L. Johnson said, “It is difficult to grasp when disaster like this is, apparently, not a natural disaster. But we have a suspect.”
Deliberate ignition, if proven, “makes it harder for us all to grasp as a community, and to deal with what we’re facing,” he said.
Firefighters are making progress against the Fawn Fire as it inched closer to Shasta Lake over the weekend, helped by cool temperatures, increased humidity and light winds. At 8,537 acres, it is now 35% contained.
When Souverneva emerged from the edge of the fire on the evening the blaze started, Cal Fire firefighters discovered that she was carrying a cigarette lighter in her pocket.
She may be linked to other recent fires in the state, Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett said during a Friday press conference. Souverneva has declined an interview request from the Bay Area News Group.
Souverneva graduated from Palo Alto High School in 2009 and the California Institute of Technology in 2012 with degrees in chemistry and biology.
She enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry but did not complete studies. She then worked in medicinal chemistry as a research associate at the biotech companies Gilead Sciences in Foster City and Nanosyn in Santa Clara.
A former Palo Alto yoga instructor, certified scuba dive master, piano teacher and camp counselor, she most recently tutored Bay Area students in the sciences at Palo Alto’s AJ Tutoring, a respected SAT test prep business.
Souverneva’s LinkedIn profile, which features a photo of a forest, lists her occupation as “shaman,” a religious term for a person who believes themselves connected to the transcendent world and acts as a healer and diviner. She’s registered to vote as a member of the Green Party.
But she has run into legal trouble before. In Santa Clara County, court records show she faced misdemeanor charges in 2017 and criminal charges in 2015. Details were not available on Sunday.
Earlier this month, Souverneva was arrested on Interstate 5 near Red Bluff and booked into the Tehama County Jail on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs and obstructing and resisting arrest. A week later, she was arrested in coastal Oregon for criminal trespass, which means unlawfully entering another’s enclosed or fenced-in property.
The Fawn Fire was ignited Sept. 22 in a remote canyon on property adjacent to Shasta County’s JF Shea Quarry. Earlier that day, Souverneva was seen trespassing on the property by a quarry employee and asked to leave. She ignored the warning and continued walking into the hills, according to a report filed by Cal Fire.
The quarry employee reported that she was acting strangely, said Bridgett.
That evening, as firefighters were battling flames, she walked out of the brush and asked for water and medical help, according to the Cal Fire report.
She said she had been hiking, according to the report. Souverneva was arrested by Cal Fire after the discovery of CO2 cartridges and a cigarette lighter in her possession.
Because of the damage caused by the wildfire, her bail has been increased to $150,000 from $100,000 for the felony charge of arson on forest land, plus $25,000 for a related misdemeanor, arson during a state of emergency.
At the Friday court appearance, an attorney said Souverneva had made statements to law enforcement that indicated a possible mental health crisis “or something to do with drug abuse,” according to the Redding Record-Searchlight.
A preliminary hearing for Souverneva will be held Oct. 7.