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An Professional on the Prison Thoughts, Now He is Suspected in an Arson Spree

Mount Shasta, at left, exterior Weed, Calif., Could 12, 2021. (Max Whittaker/The New York Occasions)

LASSEN NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. — He drove out of the Lumberjacks restaurant parking zone on a Tuesday in August, up Essential Road, previous the fireplace station and the gun store. Then, Gary Maynard left the small metropolis of Susanville within the northeastern nook of California and headed up a steep freeway into the Sierra Nevada, the place, prosecutors say, he set the forest ablaze.

Maynard, a criminology professor who makes a speciality of deviancy, now sits in a Sacramento jail awaiting a listening to. The crime professional, investigators say, turned a legal himself.

Arson, a criminal offense whose perpetrators have included legal professionals, dentists, millionaires and residents of homeless encampments, has for many years been a priority in California, the place about 10% of wildfires yearly are set on objective, in accordance with Cal Hearth, the state’s largest fireplace company.

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With megafires lately plaguing California, the place forests and scrublands stay extraordinarily desiccated by drought and different results of local weather change, the arsonist’s match is an particularly potent risk. And the crime is on the rise: Final yr the variety of wildland arson fires in California rose by 6%, from 301 to 320.

Over the previous two months, three folks suspected of arson in Northern California have been thought of accountable for fires that burned 1000’s of acres and destroyed greater than 200 houses and companies. The fires that Maynard is accused of setting have been put out earlier than they may destroy any buildings.

“The wildland arsonist is essentially the most harmful legal on the earth,” mentioned Ed Nordskog, who has spent a profession interrogating arsonists in California as an investigator in Los Angeles. “They will burn an entire city down in an hour.”

In late September, the Fawn fireplace, which investigators say was set by Alexandra Souverneva, a yoga teacher from Silicon Valley and chemistry and biology graduate of the California Institute of Know-how, injured three folks and burned 185 buildings north of Redding.

An official with Cal Hearth mentioned that there was “overwhelming proof” Souverneva deliberately lit the fireplace and that she may need been accountable for a vegetation fireplace the day earlier than in the identical space, in accordance with court docket paperwork. Upon her arrest, the paperwork mentioned, Souverneva mentioned she had tried to boil water she feared could be tainted with bear urine.

Earlier that month, the Hopkins fireplace, which prosecutors say was set by a 20-year-old native resident, burned about 250 acres and destroyed 46 buildings in Mendocino County, three hours north of San Francisco. The person, Devin Lamar Johnson, was on probation and now faces three costs of arson.

Though some wildfires in California are ignited by lightning, a overwhelming majority have nonnatural causes — sparks from electrical gear, the warmth of a garden mower engine or, within the case of one of many state’s largest fires, a person hammering a stake into the bottom.

Arson is a very difficult downside as a result of it’s so laborious to forestall. Convicted arsonists in California should register with a statewide database that presently lists 5,318 names, in accordance with Gianni Muschetto, chief of the legislation enforcement program at Cal Hearth.

Some arson specialists consider that the coronavirus pandemic has given rise to a rise in arson exercise, together with increased charges of murder, aggravated assault and automotive thefts.

In California, the variety of arson arrests jumped through the pandemic: 120 arson arrests have been reported by Cal Hearth in 2020 in contrast with 70 the yr earlier than. Arson offenses had been declining nationwide for the previous few a long time, however FBI numbers present about 13 arson offenses per 100,000 folks in 2020, a couple of 20% enhance from the earlier yr.

Arrests is also up, specialists say, due to elevated vigilance by residents at a time of widespread worry of wildfires and the harm they’ve induced.

Nordskog, who has interviewed greater than 300 arsonists in his profession, says it’s a crime that crosses race and gender strains. The Hollywood portrayal of serial arsonists excited by fireplace and doing it for a thrill applies to a small subset of arsonists, he mentioned. However extra frequent are folks annoyed with their jobs or household life or struggling psychological well being crises. “Most arsonists are simply indignant folks,” he mentioned.

The case of Maynard, the criminology professor, seems to indicate each the stresses of the pandemic, hyperlinks to psychological sickness and the arduous work of stopping arsonists earlier than they trigger irreparable hurt. Investigators tracked Maynard’s actions utilizing his meals stamp transactions, cellphone information and a tool they connected to his automotive within the Lumberjacks parking zone.

An itinerant professor who taught at Santa Clara, Chapman and Sonoma State Universities, amongst others, Maynard had a selected fascination with the 1978 Jonestown bloodbath in Guyana.

In interviews, former college students described Maynard as anxious, troubled and, at instances, inappropriate. One mentioned he usually taught his courses through the pandemic through Zoom from a darkened bed room, revealing particulars about an ailing father, a lawsuit in opposition to his former landlord and his battles along with his psychological well being.

Final yr, his life showing to unravel additional, Maynard lived in his automotive, in accordance with court docket paperwork. As he traversed Northern California, he despatched messages to college students that included rantings, in addition to hyperlinks to YouTube movies — meandering footage of bushes and mountains — wherein he ruminated on the state of the world. He additionally appeared fascinated by arson.

Heather Williams, a federal public defender who’s representing Maynard, mentioned her group was investigating Maynard’s employment historical past, however she offered no different particulars about his private life or a attainable curiosity in fireplace. “We can’t ethically reply your questions presently,” she wrote by e-mail.

“One thing was off,” mentioned a former pupil, Vamsita Venna, who took two of Maynard’s courses at Santa Clara College, the place he was an adjunct school member from September 2019 to December 2020.

Ultimately, Venna and others raised considerations with professors; an worker on the college notified the police. Maynard’s contract was not renewed, the college mentioned.

What seems clear is that within the closing months of Maynard’s educating profession, the boundary between his educational analysis and private fascinations with fireplace started to blur.

Based on court docket paperwork, officers first got here throughout Maynard in July when responding to a wildfire on the slopes of Mt. Shasta, about an hour south of the Oregon border. After a mountain biker referred to as to report the fireplace, an investigator with the U.S. Forest Service discovered Maynard on a rutted street making an attempt to extricate his automotive, which had gotten caught on a boulder.

Brokers photographed the automotive and took be aware of the patterns of its tire tracks. When the identical tracks have been discovered close to a second fireplace that ignited lower than 24 hours later, the lead investigator obtained a warrant to trace Maynard’s cellphone. Verizon despatched coordinates for the cellphone’s location each quarter-hour to brokers, who intently tracked his actions.

When Maynard traveled to Susanville, they positioned the tracker on his automotive.

On Aug. 3, brokers adopted Maynard’s actions into the hills. The air was thick with smoke from the Dixie fireplace, a megafire burning a number of dozen miles away that specialists consider began from electrical gear.

Maynard drove right into a labyrinth of rutted dust logging roads within the Lassen Nationwide Forest and set three further fires, investigators say. After the third fireplace he was arrested.

Investigators charged Maynard with setting one fireplace, and say he’s fairly possible linked with a number of others in July and August, all of which have been caught earlier than they may trigger the devastation that different wildfires have lately. He has pleaded not responsible.

The U.S. district lawyer who introduced the costs in opposition to him argued that Maynard was “notably harmful, even amongst arsonists.”

“The place Maynard went, fires began,” Phillip Talbert, the district lawyer, mentioned in a court docket submitting. “Not simply as soon as, however again and again.”

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