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Citizen trackers aid arrest of suspected Monte Rio arsonist, now charged with setting 10 fires

A pair of citizen detectives had been tracking him through the wilds of Monte Rio for weeks, using dozens of motion-activated cameras mounted on trees that pinged their phones when triggered.

Time after time, a fire would erupt somewhere in the woods and the cameras would snap a photo of the same man nearby, said one of the sleuths, Kari Morrissey.

Now Jack Stanley Seprish, a transient who has long camped amid the trees and brush off Bohemian Highway, has been charged with 10 counts of arson in Sonoma County Superior Court.

After initially being held on a burglary charge, his bail was raised Tuesday to $920,000.

For Morrissey, a criminal defense attorney, and her collaborator, Sara Paul, Seprish’s arrest marks the culmination of an intensive, three-month partnership with local fire officials — one undertaken on behalf of the community and with its support.

Funding for more than 50 cameras placed strategically near encampments and pathways that seemed likely to elicit hits, came largely from Friends of Villa Grande, as well as the private Bohemian Grove. Random citizens also dropped off money and cameras at the Monte Rio firehouse.

“A lot of friends jumped in,” said Paul, a founder of the Watch Duty mobile app, which tracks fires in Lake, Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties. “The trust this community put in me and Kari is pretty awesome.”

The two women hardly knew each other at the start, though they had an online acquaintanceship through their mutual concern about wildfires.

Residents of Monte Rio have been on edge for years because of a disturbing number of mostly small fires in the community, some of them erupting in encampments and others of undetermined origin in the woods and forests, local fire Chief Steve Baxman said.

There were a few last fall and since Jan. 1 this year, a total of 10, Baxman said.

Morrissey, who sits on the Monte Rio Fire Protection District Board, had begun poking around in the woods after the first flurry of fires several years ago. She was worried because several fires were near her neighborhood at Main Street and Old Bohemian Highway.

When another rash of fires erupted last fall, she bought two game cameras and mounted them in the woods, one opposite the other. At one point, someone took one of the cameras by burning the strap, though it easily could have been cut from the tree. The action was caught on the other camera, and the burned strap was left behind, which seemed kind of “creepy,” Morrissey said.

She believes the camera was stolen Oct. 17, the first day Seprish, now 43, showed up on camera.

The winter was mostly quiet, but on March 1, as the landscape grew increasingly parched in what’s been California’s driest year on record, flames took off in a remote, densely forested area up the side of a hill on the south side of town.

The Alpine fire charred 21 acres, producing thick, dark smoke that shrouded the region and rained ash on rural Monte Rio.

It was one of a half dozen fires in quick succession, and Morrissey and Paul decided they’d had enough. It turns out, supporters in the community had, too.

The women decided to kick the whole project “into high gear,” reaching out to the community and upgrading equipment to digital cameras that would alert their phones when images came in.

Friends of Villa Grande, a nonprofit whose members are residents of a community slightly downstream from Monte Rio, was among those monitoring the fire situation nearby with increasing concern.

The prospects of wildfire anywhere in the area are grim, given dense vegetation unburned for many decades and remote homes along narrow, winding roads. However it is of particular concern in Villa Grande, which has had limited egress since flooding in 2019 caved in part of Moscow Road.

“Tracking the fires … it became pretty clear that there was a pattern that was not a healthy pattern,” said Kyla Brooke, Friends of Villa Grande president.

After Paul gave a presentation on the camera project and word went out seeking donations, “within a day and a half we reached over $7,000,” Brooke said. “It struck a chord in everyone’s mind.”

The Bohemian Grove also bought 20 cameras, and Baxman and other firefighters helped limb trees and mount cameras all around the region. By the end, there were cameras hidden all over the community, on both sides of the highway and the river, up hills and in lowlands.

Morrissey and Paul, meanwhile, monitored the cameras 24-hours a day, seeing various individuals come and go. But Seprish, who grew up in the region and is widely known, was the most prominent and closely associated with the fire sites, they said.

“I’ve always been my own best investigator,” Morrissey said. But “the only way you’re going to catch a guy like this is basically if you stalk him. I decided that I was going to become his stalker.”

As a defense lawyer, Morrissey said she was not prepared to assume he was responsible for the fires “for quite along time,” however. Then May 6, a photo came across her phone of Seprish lying in the forest using some kind of torch that cast flames larger than a cigarette lighter.

It’s one of hundreds of photos she has turned over to Cal Fire, she said.

But Seprish was still at large until Thursday night, when there were two suspicious fires and a burglary, each slightly farther south on Bohemian Highway.

Morrissey was just settling into a Golden States Warrior game at home when she was alerted by her phone. A man who appeared to be Seprish had triggered a camera in the woods.

At 5:31 p.m., he was spotted entering the forest, she said. At 5:35 p.m., he was seen running out.

Moments later, Morrissey’s phone was alerted again: The next image was a firefighter, chasing down a report of fire.

A few minutes later, additional images of Seprish, dressed differently, arrived showing him quickly entering and exiting the woods about a half mile farther south. Morrissey went out and persuaded a CHP officer on traffic control for the initial blaze to hike into the woods to the second camera site, where a smaller fire was discovered.

Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman, who confirmed her account, said initial reports of a third fire that night were incorrect.

But there was a third emergency call — from a resident reporting hearing gunshots in the area south of town. Deputies were responding when a homeowner reported catching an intruder at an unoccupied second dwelling on his land and firing several warning shots as the men fled.

During the hubbub, Guerneville resident Jeniffer Wertz saw a Cal Fire truck fly past her house upriver in response to one of the fires. Morrissey had sometimes shared tracking photos with Wertz to try to pin down identities, and Wertz drove out to Monte Rio to see what was happening.

She passed a man in khaki pants riding shirtless on a bike she drove into Monte Rio, which struck her odd because it was 57 degrees, but the man was gone by the time she turned around. When she met up with Morrissey, she realized one of the new photos showed Seprish in the same attire.

She was waiting near the Monte Rio fire station to tell an investigator when the same man rode past wearing still other clothes, and she followed him to a commercial district on Highway 116, where he ran into a house. That’s when she called 911.

Seprish was arrested that night on suspicion of burglary and for two outstanding warrants issued in 2020 for petty theft, failure to appear in court, resisting arrest and drug offenses.

He was charged Tuesday on 10 with additional felony counts and 10 enhancements for fires that occurred between Feb. 19 and May 10. He has not yet entered a plea. Enhancements mean an eventual sentence could be increased based on the nature of the crimes or the defendant’s past record.

Seprish faces a maximum of 30 years, 8 months in prison if convicted on all counts.

Paul said there were lots of people involved in the project who deserve credit, including the local fire company and those who contributed.

“It’s a giant team of people that kind of brought this chapter to a close,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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