PD Editorial: Fake fire news fans flames of discord and ignorance

We smelled this one coming when a Washington resident called Wednesday wondering why she couldn't find anything on about the illegal immigrant who started all the fires that have devastated this region.

The answer is simple, we told her. Because it's not true. But as we know in this era of fake news, to paraphrase an old Mark Twain saying, lies can orbit the globe several times before the truth even gets logged on.

The source of this story was none other than Breibart News, an alt-right website that has shown a willingness to go to any length — and depth — to profit from the misfortune of others by disseminating fake news to generate web traffic and sow discord. Breitbart reported on Tuesday that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency had been turned down by Sonoma County on a detainer request for an undocumented immigrant who was arrested 'on suspicion of arson in Wine Country fires that have killed at least 40 residents.' Info Wars repeated the news, and now, in the minds of their followers, it has become fact.

'It shows how the supervisors and sheriff who ignored helping ICE can lead to personal disaster to thousands of people,' Robert Casper of San Rafael wrote in a letter to The Press Democrat. 'Will you apologize to those that lost their homes?

To make matters all the more ludicrous, Thomas D. Homan, the acting director of ICE, gave credibility to this nonsense by issuing a statement castigating Sonoma County's handling of the man's arrests. He said it left the community 'vulnerable to dangerous individuals and preventable crimes,' he said.

Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano, who had tried to squelch this bogus story earlier in the week, was right to fire back, saying that Homan's statement was 'inaccurate, inflammatory and damages the relationship we have with our community.' Yes, sheriff's deputies arrested a homeless individual, identified as Jesus Fabian Gonzalez, in Maxwell Farms Regional Park in Sonoma on Sunday on suspicion of starting a fire, one he said he started to keep warm. But the fire was put out quickly. Moreover, the fires that swept through this region started a full week before this arrest. As Giordano noted on Thursday, 'There is no indication that Gonzalez had anything to do with these fires, and it appears highly unlikely.'

Making matters worse, the ICE chief gave the impression in his statement that Gonzalez has been released, leaving the community 'vulnerable.' But Gonzalez remains in custody on $200,000 bail.

If Homan truly believes that Gonzalez is the threat that he contends, he should have no problem securing a federal warrant to have him held for ICE. The Sheriff's Office has said it would honor such holds. But our guess is Homan knows he's unlikely to find a judge to go along with it because anybody who takes time to investigate this case will see it for what it is. Hogwash.

The county has enough going on without having to deal with inflammatory stories that serve only to demonstrate that Breitbart is as phony as the news it promotes and Homan is simply unfit for office.

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