The Neumann brothers lost more than just memories and possessions when their mother’s Fountaingrove house burned in the October wildfires.
They lost their freedom.
About a week after the Tubbs fire raced into Santa Rosa, destroying 4,655 homes and killing 22 people, Evan Neumann, 45, and his brother, Mark, 32, were arrested when they attempted to walk to Debbie Neumann’s Lyon Court house to look for valuables.
Hoping to beat rains they feared would turn ashes to cement, they stepped around a National Guard barricade at Leete Avenue and were headed up Parker Hill Road when multiple patrol cars arrived.
“We never got onto the property,” said Mark Neumann, a Santa Rosa contractor. “Police pulled up and said drop your backpacks and put your hands up.”
Now, each faces a misdemeanor charge of entering a disaster zone carrying up to six months in jail. A trial is set for Thursday.
Mark Neumann said he can’t afford to take time off work and was considering a prosecution offer of serving 180 hours of community service and three years’ probation.
His older brother, a freelance software developer in Mill Valley, vowed to take his case to a jury, representing himself. He said he was misled by an earlier conversation with law enforcement into thinking what he wanted to do was OK.
“I feel like it’s unfair,” Evan Neumann said. “I feel like I was suckered.”
Santa Rosa police had a different take on the Oct. 17 incident that happened five days before the area was deemed safe and residents were allowed to return.
Sgt. David Linscomb said Evan Neumann called him earlier in the week to ask if he could go to his mother’s house. He told Neumann no — the area was still off-limits and it would be illegal to enter. The brothers were told a second time by National Guard troops but walked past the barrier anyway, Linscomb said.
“That’s when we got called.”
Throughout the burn zone, Linscomb said only a few people violated orders to stay away. In many cases, gas had not yet been turned off and there were potential hazards, Linscomb said.
“I understand people were frustrated that they couldn’t get to their properties,” he said. “At the same time, the area was deemed unsafe for entry. We have to enforce the law. If people won’t abide, it leaves us no choice.”
The Neumanns’ plight was detailed on social media, where it touched off a flurry of support. Many agreed the arrests were unwarranted in the face of such devastation. Others expressed their own unhappiness at having to wait while looters were getting in.
A Facebook post on a group devoted to the fires listed the prosecutor’s name and email address, urging people to express their displeasure.
“This is unbelievable,” another group member, Vikki Fleming, wrote of the charges. “They have to drop this!”
Others said the brothers should have waited.
“We had to wait,” Lori Morris wrote. “Just like everyone else. It sucked but we followed the rules.”
The Neumanns are sons of the late Santa Rosa hotelier Claus Neumann, who ran the iconic Los Robles Lodge on Cleveland Avenue and the Hotel La Rose in Railroad Square. He died in 2011, leaving his widow the Fountaingrove house they bought in the early 1990s.