Former Sonoma State University lecturer arrested in series of arson fires near Northern California’s Dixie fire

A former Sonoma State University lecturer suspected in a series of arson fires in remote forested areas of Northern California near the massive Dixie fire has been charged in connection with one of the blazes in Lassen County and was ordered held Tuesday in the Sacramento County Main Jail.

Gary Stephen Maynard, 47, was a part-time lecturer in SSU’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice during the fall 2020 semester, said SSU spokeswoman Julia Gonzalez.

He taught two seminars to fill in for a faculty member on leave but he was not employed again for spring 2021, Gonzalez said.

Maynard is also believed to have worked at other colleges in California, including Santa Clara University.

Santa Clara did not immediately reply to queries about Maynard from The Sacramento Bee.

Maynard was arrested Saturday following an investigation that began July 20 and included a U.S. Forest Service agent placing a tracking device under his car after he had been stopped briefly by Susanville police on Aug. 3.

Maynard, whose middle name is alternately spelled "Stephan" in jail records, made a brief appearance Tuesday in federal court in Sacramento, where Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Anderson asked that he not be released from custody.

"There are simply no conditions that could be fashioned that could ensure the safety of the public with respect to this defendant," Anderson told U.S. Magistrate Judge Kendall J. Newman.

"Over the course of the last several weeks, Maynard has set a series of fires in the vicinity of the Lassen National Forest and Shasta Trinity National Forest...," Anderson wrote in a detention memo. "The area in which Maynard chose to set his fires is near the ongoing Dixie fire, a fire which is still not contained despite the deployment and efforts of over 5,000 personnel.

"Depending on wind direction, smoke from this fire has engulfed the federal courthouse here in Sacramento and has been experienced several states away."

Maynard is charged in a criminal complaint with willfully setting the Ranch fire in Lassen County on Saturday, and could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on that count.

Newman said the nature of the case suggested there may be mental issues at play and ordered him to remain in custody pending a hearing Wednesday.

"There's certainly some potential, if not red flags, pink flags," Newman said.

According to court filings, Maynard first came to the attention of authorities after the Cascade fire was reported at 9:45 a.m. on July 20 on the western slopes of Mount Shasta.

Mountain bikers who reported the fire and tried to help put it out helped keep the blaze to about 100 to 200 acres in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, court papers say.

U.S. Forest Service investigator Brian Murphy responded to the scene and found a man later identified as Maynard underneath a black Kia Soul that had its front wheels stuck in a ditch and its undercarriage centered on a boulder, court papers say.

"Murphy introduced himself as an official with the Forest Service and requested the man's name," court papers say. "This man did not come out from under the vehicle and did not identify himself, but instead stayed under the vehicle and mumbled words that (investigator) Murphy could not understand.

"(Investigator) Murphy advised this man that he would like to ask him a few questions. The man quit digging and stood up. ... Murphy began to ask questions about the nearby fire to which this man responded that he did not know anything about any fires."

The man asked Murphy to help tow his vehicle out, but when Murphy said he could not do that the man became "uncooperative and agitated" and crawled back under the Kia, court papers say.

During the encounter, the man said he was a professor and Forest Service investigators subsequently found online profiles for Maynard "at various universities in California," court papers say.

A second vehicle parked near that spot included a witness who later told authorities that the driver of the Kia seemed angry, at one point displayed a large knife and was "mumbling a lot and having bipolar-like behavior," an affidavit from U.S. Forest Service Special Agent Tyler Bolen says.

A second fire erupted the next day at 2:50 a.m. on Mount Shasta near the Everitt Memorial Highway, and investigators later found tire tracks similar to those made by the Kia, court papers say.

Investigators tracked Maynard's address to San Jose, where police said a concerned citizen called them in October 2020 "with concerns about their colleague, Maynard, who worked as a professor at Santa Clara University," court papers say.

"This concerned citizen told officers that Maynard had told her he was suffering from anxiety, depression, split personality, and that he wanted to kill himself," the affidavit says. "This concerned citizen said that Maynard had moved out and was possibly living somewhere out of his vehicle."

Authorities then began tracking Maynard's movements through his electronic benefits transfer card used for public assistance, and through store video recordings, court papers say, and began looking at earlier fires.

They also obtained cellphone search warrants that were still sealed Tuesday, as well as a warrant allowing a vehicle tracker to be placed on Maynard's Kia, court papers say. Using that, investigators tracked his movements for hundreds of miles, including to the area where the Ranch fire and Conard fire erupted Saturday in the Lassen National Forest, court papers say.

"It appeared that Maynard was in the midst of an arson-setting spree," court papers say.

Maynard was arrested that day inside the emergency closure area forced by the Dixie fire, court papers say.

"He entered the evacuation zone and began setting fires behind the first responders fighting the Dixie fire," Anderson wrote in his detention memo. "In addition to the danger of enlarging the Dixie fire and threatening more lives and property, this increased the danger to the first responders."

Maynard later told agents interviewing him that he had not set any fires, court papers say.

"Maynard denied setting any fires and, at one point, stated that if the agents were going to accuse him of starting fires that he would defend himself in court," court papers say, adding that after he was booked into the Lassen County Jail he "became enraged and began kicking the jail cell door."

"I'm going to kill you, f---- pig!" he screamed, according to court documents. "I told those f---- I didn't start any of those fires!"

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