Looters spoil return home for Lake County residents who escaped Valley fire

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Mario Uribe was elated when he returned to Cobb Mountain on Saturday after two weeks living as an evacuee to find his family’s home untouched by flames from the Valley fire.

That joy quickly turned to shock, and then rage, when Uribe, 38, discovered the home in the Whispering Pines neighborhood had been ransacked by thieves in the family’s mandatory absence.

Stepping inside, Uribe found the contents of almost every drawer in the house emptied onto beds and the floor. The owner of a landscaping business, Uribe estimates the thieves stole $38,000 in cash he had stashed throughout the house and in an outdoor shed, where numerous tools also were missing.

Uribe reported the burglary to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office on Saturday. He said the thieves rummaged through cabinets containing files on his business clients, bank and credit card statements and a book containing passwords.

“I would have been happier if my house burned down because I wouldn’t have felt so violated,” a despondent Uribe said Monday while standing in his kitchen.

The Cobb man is among an unknown number of homeowners who were taken advantage after they were forced to flee the Valley fire. Many dropped everything and bolted without stopping to lock doors or windows, making the homes easily accessible to anyone with cruel intentions.

“Pretty pathetic,” Lake County Sheriff’s Lt. Steve Brooks said Monday of looters. “There’s a special place in hell for those people.”

With the last of evacuation orders lifted over the weekend, a full accounting of crimes committed during the fire response is still being tallied. However, at least six people suspected of looting or planning to loot the homes of fire evacuees have been arrested since the fire broke out Sept. 12, according to authorities.

They include Jeremiah Patrick McGinnis, 26, of Cobb, who was arrested on suspicion of taking a vehicle without the owner’s consent, burglary, burglary during a state of emergency and entering a closed disaster area, according to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. McGinnis was driving what’s believed to be a stolen vehicle that was painted to look like a patrol vehicle, Sheriff’s officials said. He also was in possession of property believed to have been stolen.

Steven Fredrick Worley, 36, of Whispering Pines; and Royce Sterling Moore, 26, of Lakeport, were arrested on separate occasions on charges that include possession of burglary tools and being in an area closed by an emergency order.

Three other men suspected of looting homes in evacuation zones — David Michael Cesari, 23, of San Francisco; Dyami Gene Connell, 23, of Brisbane; and Michael James Jimenez, 28, of Brisbane — were arrested together and since have been charged with felony conspiracy to commit theft related crimes and misdemeanor charges of possession of burglary tools and unlawfully entering an area closed due to an emergency order, according to Lake County Chief Deputy District Attorney Richard Hinchcliff.

Cesari additionally was charged with possession of a concealed, loaded handgun.

The men were arrested in the early morning hours of Sept. 17 as they drove through the Hidden Valley Lake area. The deputy who stopped their vehicle found a full face mask, three pairs of gloves, tools, duct tape, zip ties, numerous key rings with keys, acetone, a lighter, headlamps, flashlights, binoculars, empty garbage bags, a backpack and large knives, the Sheriff’s Office reported.

As the head of his household, Uribe feels especially stressed out by the burglary and the pressure to get his family back on its feet. His mother, stepfather and brother live with him at the home, which is situated on a hill covered with massive Douglas firs and Ponderosa pines.

Medication for his mother, Maria Verdin, also was taken, as was a special hairbrush Uribe had saved up to purchase as a Mother’s Day gift. Verdin is a cancer survivor and diabetic who works in housecleaning at Twin Pines Casino in Middletown.

Uribe, who was born in San Francisco and grew up in St. Helena, purchased the home in 2006.

The Valley fire bypassed the neighborhood as it rampaged east toward Middletown. Uribe said he was taking a nap in a hammock on the afternoon of Sept. 12 when the ringing of his cellphone awoke him. A friend was calling to alert him to a fire that had broken out on Cobb Mountain.

Uribe missed the call, which went to voice mail. His attention had been drawn skyward by an air tanker flying just above the tree tops, a nearly routine disturbance for Lake County residents in a summer darkened by several other major wildlfires.

But Uribe realized at that point that he and his stepfather, the only two people home at the time, were in danger and needed to get out. They grabbed an Igloo cooler, jackets and Bugsy, Uribe’s small dog, and peeled away in Uribe’s truck.

They drove first to Twin Pines Casino, where Verdin was working. That refuge was short-lived as flames advanced on Middletown and the casino had to be evacuated.

The casino later offered a room to Uribe’s family while public access to their neighborhood was restricted. Uribe is staying at the home of a landscaping client near Hidden Valley Lake.

For two weeks, the family could only wonder whether their home was still standing. Now they wonder who was heartless enough to take advantage of their situation. How the thieves managed to gain access to the neighborhood and elude stepped-up police patrols is part of the mystery.

Uribe said he had never experienced any problems with crime in Whispering Pines. But he believes the thieves live within the community, basing that theory on the fact that they carted off relatively small items and left behind such things as an ATV with the keys in the ignition and a flat-screen TV, as well as a table saw and other large tools.

Uribe recalls locking the doors before he fled the home. But he can’t recall the status of the windows. The shed housing many of his work tools was unlocked.

Many other Lake County residents who were forced to flee the fire left their homes similarly exposed to would-be thieves.

On Monday, as he was recounting what was stolen from the home, a Bible was flipped open on a wood-burning stove, just as Uribe’s mother left it.

“How can I explain it?” he said. “You almost feel like somebody has seen you undressed.”

Uribe met with an insurance adjuster at the home Monday. But getting the major losses covered may prove difficult since he did not keep records of the cash he said was stolen. He said he only has $1,000 in the bank, hardly enough to cover his mortgage payment and other bills.

He’s also lost many of his landscaping clients whose homes burned down.

“What do I do?” he said.

For complete wildfire coverage go to:

Staff Writer Glenda Anderson contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or

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