Resident of destroyed Ukiah apartments suspected of setting fires
Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 12:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 1:09 p.m.
A young woman living in a Ukiah apartment complex devastated by fire earlier this week is suspected of having set the fire, a Mendocino County sheriff's sergeant reported.
Sheriff's detectives suspect the woman of setting 12 other Ukiah fires since October, Mendocino County sheriff's Sgt. Jason Caudillo said Wednesday.
“We're confident we know who it is,” said Caudillo. “She's been under surveillance by our department the last three months.”
But the fires remain under investigation and detectives don't have enough evidence to make an arrest, he said.
The blaze at the Fircrest Apartments complex was reported just after midnight Monday and spread quickly. An estimated 20 people were left homeless, and more than 40 people were evacuated.
“Obviously a lot of people are quite shaken up,” said apartment complex co-owner Robert Sherwood, who spent most of Wednesday at the property returning security deposits and helping displaced tenants find new homes.
He and a partner have owned the 50-unit complex, which was built in 1979 and has no sprinkler system, since 1990. It is located at South State Street and Fircrest Drive in southern Ukiah. The units rent for just under $900, Sherwood said.
He said the hardest part of the aftermath has been seeing the tenant now suspected of setting the blaze walking around as though she is a victim of it.
The woman's apartment was one of the eight units damaged in the blaze.
Sherwood said he was in the process of evicting the woman, who had sublet one of the two bedrooms in her two-bedroom, one-bath unit to seven other people. The eviction paperwork had been delivered to the manager's office on Sunday evening.
“Hours later, the place was up in flames,” Sherwood said.
The woman also is a suspect in a series of arsons at an apartment complex in Merced, where she lived prior to moving to Ukiah in October, Caudillo said.
“I'd like her put in jail before someone gets killed,” Sherwood said.
All 13 Ukiah fires occurred near the Fircrest complex. Two fires burned parked cars, nine caused negligible damage and Monday's fire destroyed or damaged 12 apartments, destroying some families' possessions and leaving several families homeless.
During this week's fire, 11 adults and children had to jump from second-story windows to safety. They were treated for minor injuries.
A Red Cross shelter set up at Ukiah High School has aided about three dozen people since Monday morning.
Caudillo declined to name the suspect, only saying she was 25 to 30 years old. She has been interviewed by detectives and has denied any involvement, he said.
The woman moved to Ukiah in October, moving in with a family member at the Fircrest complex, Caudillo said. Prior to coming to Ukiah, she lived in Merced.
There, she was being investigated by police involving numerous suspicious fires in or around her apartment complex, Caudillo said. Those fires occurred during a two-year period and at least in one case involved multiple fires in a day.
The woman was either the person who had reported the fire or a witness. Merced police began to focus on her as a suspect, police told Mendocino detectives.
“They never had enough information or evidence to make an arrest,” Caudillo said.
Police officials in Merced could not be reached for comment.
For the 13 Ukiah fires, the woman either has reported them or has been a witness, the sergeant said.
The Ukiah fires began in October with a car parked near the apartment set ablaze.
There were nine more until mid-December. At that point sheriff's detectives installed a surveillance camera in the complex.
The next fire was Feb. 26, when another car burned, followed by Monday's fire.
Evidence gathered from the latest fire, including cotton balls possibly dipped in accelerant, has been sent to a Department of Justice lab. Detectives have found cotton balls at some of the other 12 suspicious fires.
An arson dog brought to the complex Monday found evidence of accelerant, including at the threshold of an apartment and a staircase foyer.
Sherwood said what is so upsetting to him is that the arsonist set the fire near doorways knowing people where sleeping inside the units.
“Whoever set the fire made it so there was no escape route except for the window,” Sherwood said. “These people had moments, minutes to escape.”
Caudillo asked anyone who may be a witness to any of the area fires to contact detectives at (707) 463-4086.
A $5,000 reward for information in the case may be offered by the insurance company, Sherwood said.
Staff Writer Kevin McCallum contributed to this report.
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