A Sebastopol contractor is accused of trying to intimidate a lawyer by setting a pickup truck ablaze in the driveway of an east Santa Rosa home where firefighters found a dead bird, a flaming box of feces left on the porch and an outside brick pillar pulled down.
The man appeared to be trying to send a message to a local criminal defense attorney, Santa Rosa police said.
Turns out he got the wrong house.
The Oct. 28 vehicle fire was started at the house of a man with the same name as the lawyer, police said.
Sebastopol contractor Gary Howard, 50, was arrested Nov. 16 and is being held at the Sonoma County Jail without bail on suspicion of felony arson, vandalism and animal cruelty. He was arraigned last week in Sonoma County Superior Court and hasn’t entered a plea. He is scheduled to appear in court Jan. 9 after a mental health evaluation.
The Press Democrat is not identifying the lawyer because police are still trying to determine whether anyone else was involved in setting the fires.
The criminal defense lawyer said he’s never represented Howard in any legal proceeding, and Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Marcus Sprague said a motive remains unclear.
Howard has never been arrested in Sonoma County, according to his attorney, Monte Hanson, and is a successful contractor. Hanson said Howard may have suffered a “break with reality” but is “not a danger to society.”
“He has a very good memory of what happened and why, and I will just say he didn’t intend to hurt anyone,” Hanson said.
“He’s not a danger to the public and certainly not to the victim or victims in this case. I agree it presents as a wild, scary situation but it’s far from that.”
Hanson declined to describe Howard’s explanation of what occurred that night, saying he first needed to receive the investigation reports from prosecutors.
Santa Rosa Battalion Chief Mark Basque said there were three fires burning in front of a home on a cul-de-sac off Summerfield Road when firefighters arrived about 4:35 a.m. on Oct. 28.
“It looked like somebody had taken wood chips used for landscaping, stacked those around a tire and ignited those,” Basque said. “The fire went into the engine compartment.”
Firefighters put out a second fire in the front yard landscaping and doused flames in what looked like dog poop in a small box about 8 inches square.
A large woodpecker about the size of a crow — possibly a pileated woodpecker with distinct red feathers on its head — lay dead on the doormat, Basque said.
It also looked like someone had hooked a chain or tow strap from a vehicle to a brick pillar near the front door and driven away, pulling the pillar down, Basque said.
Sprague, who runs the Santa Rosa police property crimes division, said the evidence strongly suggests the fires, bird and excrement were intended as some sort of threatening messages.
“Common sense says if you come to somebody’s house, light the property on fire and pull part of the house down, that’s threatening,” Sprague said.