Arsonist’s selfie at King Fire leads to sentence of 20 years in prison

A man’s selfie video was one of the important pieces of evidence that led to him becoming a suspect in starting the 2014 King Fire that burned about 100,000 acres east of Placerville, California. Wayne Allen Huntsman, who pleaded guilty Friday to three counts of felony arson, was sentenced to 20 years in prison and ordered to pay $60 million in restitution.

Wayne Allen Huntsman
Wayne Allen Huntsman

After starting the fire, Mr. Huntsman showed someone he had just met who was giving him a ride, a video of himself standing near two points of origin of the King Fire. The good citizen recorded Mr. Huntsman’s video and reported what he had seen. Three days later Mr. Huntsman was in jail. Media outlets reported that he was held in lieu of $10 million bail.

On September 15, 2014, during the fire suppression efforts, 12 firefighters on an inmate crew became at least partially entrapped and deployed their fire shelters. But they were not in a safe deployment site. Pilots in firefighting aircraft talked to them on the radio and directed them as they walked and ran a considerable distance to a location where they could be extracted by helicopters.

The charges against Mr. Huntsman included a special allegation — arson with aggravating factors. The complaint said those factors were:

A firefighter, peace officer, or other emergency personnel suffered great bodily injury as a result of the offense.

His criminal history at the time of arrest showed four past felonies, including three 1997 convictions in Santa Cruz County for assault with a deadly weapon, grand theft and auto theft.

Below is a video of Mr. Huntsman’s video recorded by the person that gave Mr. Huntsman a ride.

This next video is an excellent report on the whole story. At first I thought the audio at the beginning was screwed up, but the multiple voices eventually resolve to normal narration.

Incendiary devices found on Massachusetts power line

One of the devices is believed to have started a vegetation fire.

Unusual incendiary devices were found hanging from a power line in Massachusetts on Thursday. Firefighters reported the objects after they responded to the fire in Tyngsborough.

The photos below are screen grabs from an article at WMUR.com.

Powerline incendiary device Powerline incendiary device

Below is an excerpt from WMUR.com:

…Police said they found cylindrical metal objects on high power lines — that someone deliberately placed there.

“It would take a considerable effort to get up as high as they did in this instance,” said Howe.

Investigators said the devices looked like pipe bombs but were not explosive. They said it appears they were designed to start a fire and had to be manually activated.

“These devices were homemade,” FBI special agent Peter Kowenhoven said. “Those devices are going to now be moved to the FBI lab for analysis to identify the precursor chemicals, as well as the other parts of the device.”

Authorities haven’t said how many devices were found or how they were placed on the power lines.

“I can’t think of any other reason why somebody would want to do that, other than a sinister reason,” said Kowenhoven.

Agents said the fact that the objects were designed to catch fire — not explode — could help them pin down those responsible…

Other electricity transmission facilities in Nogales, Arizona and California’s Silicon Valley were targets of sabotage in 2013 and 2014.

Connecticut volunteer firefighters arrested for arson

In a television interview, one of them apologized but did not admit setting the fire.

firefighter arson David G. Korot Vincenzo M. Marino
David G. Korot (left) and Vincenzo M. Marino

Two volunteer firefighters, David Korot, 19, and 21-year old Vincenzo Marino, firefirefighters with the Drakesville Volunteer Fire Department in Connecticut were arrested Wednesday night and charged setting a wildland fire that burned 14 acres near Torrington. Both were released on $5,000 bonds and are scheduled to face a judge in Bantam Superior Court on March 28.

Mr. Marino appears in the video below, probably much to the chagrin of his attorney, if he is smart enough to obtain one.

Former firefighter sentenced a second time for arson

Benjamin Cunha had worked for CAL FIRE and volunteered for other fire departments.

On Tuesday a former firefighter for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Diamond Springs Fire Protection District was sentenced for wildland fire arson a second time, this time for five years. Benjamin Cunha, 33, of Placerville, California had previously admitted starting at least 30 fires from August 2005 through September 2007 in the El Dorado/Amador area.

Benjamin Cunha
Benjamin Cunha, after his arrest in 2007.

Two of those fires, the Mine and Palmer Fires, burned onto federal land. Mr. Cunha confessed he used a distinctive time-delay incendiary device, which he had also used to start many of his other fires.

Mr. Cunha, who came from a family of firefighters, was a seasonal firefighter for CAL FIRE from 2001 to 2003. According to the agency when the 2005-2007 fires were set he was a volunteer for the Diamond Springs Fire Protection District in El Dorado County.

He indicated that his motivation for setting the fires was to overcome boredom, to earn overtime pay for fighting the fires, and to impress his peers. Even though he was a volunteer, he could have been eligible for payment during busy periods, said Robert Combs, chief of the Diamond Springs district.

In 2008 he was sentenced to 365 days in jail, which he was allowed to serve in a program that allowed him to leave the jail each day for work and return for sleep. Mr. Cunha was also sentenced to 72 months of probation. The terms of probation included GPS monitoring during the fire season. He completed his term of probation in the summer of 2012.

The next summer, July and August of 2013, authorities investigated two new suspected arson fires in the El Dorado/Amador area. Law enforcement determined that at least one of the fires was started using a time-delay incendiary device similar to the devices Mr. Cunha had admitted to using in the 2007-2008 series of El Dorado/Amador county fires and he emerged as a primary suspect in the 2013 fires. Rather than continue the investigation of the 2013 fires, and to curb the risk of any additional fires in the meantime, he was charged for the 2007 Mine Fire that the government alleged burned onto federal land in El Dorado County. Cunha had admitted to setting the fire in a 2008 videotaped interview with local law enforcement. As part of the bargain struck in the written plea agreement in this latest case, the U.S. Attorney’s office agreed not to prosecute the two 2013 fires.

“Benjamin Cunha set over 30 fires in El Dorado and Amador Counties. ATF worked with our local partners and utilized several resources to perfect an investigation for federal prosecution,” said Special Agent in Charge Jill A. Snyder.

In addition to the five year prison sentence, on Tuesday U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez also ordered Mr. Cunha to pay $246,862 in restitution to CAL FIRE for the cost of fighting the 2007 Mine Fire. Prosecutors had requested the judge sentence him to 7.5 years behind bars because he acknowledged that he is a serial arsonist and “there is a high need to protect the community from Cunha.”

This case was the product of an investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, with assistance from CAL FIRE.

Ammon Bundy and 6 others associated with Oregon federal building takeover arrested; shots fired, one killed

Ryan and Ammon Bundy and five others associated with the armed seizure of the Malheur National Wildlife refuge on January 2 were arrested late Tuesday afternoon in Oregon. The FBI reported that shots were fired and one person is deceased.

In addition to the six arrests and one fatality in Oregon, at 8:30 p.m. PST Tuesday Jon Eric Ritzheimer, age 32, was arrested in Arizona on a federal charge related to the armed occupation. Mr. Ritzheimer turned himself in to the Peoria, Arizona, Police Department. The arrest was without incident.

The seizure of the Refuge was triggered by the resentencing of Dwight Hammond, Jr., and his son, Steven Hammond who set fires on Bureau of Land Management property not far from the Wildlife Refuge. It escalated into demands that public lands be turned over to states, individuals, or corporations.

Below is the press release from the Portland FBI office:

****

“At approximately 6:30 p.m. (PST), the FBI arrested Peter Santilli, age 50, of Cincinnati, Ohio, in Burns, Oregon. He faces the same federal felony charge as the individuals listed below. The arrest was without incident.

At approximately 4:25 p.m. (PST) on Tuesday, January 26, 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Oregon State Police (OSP) began an enforcement action to bring into custody a number of individuals associated with the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. During that arrest, there were shots fired.

One individual who was a subject of a federal probable cause arrest is deceased. We will not be releasing any information about that person pending identification by the medical examiner’s office.

One individual suffered non-life threatening injuries and was transported to a local hospital for treatment. He was arrested and is currently in custody.

The arrested individuals include:

  • Ammon Edward Bundy, age 40, of Emmett, Idaho
  • Ryan C. Bundy, age 43, of Bunkerville, Nevada
  • Brian Cavalier, age 44, of Bunkerville, Nevada
  • Shawna Cox, age 59, Kanab, Utah
  • Ryan Waylen Payne, age 32, of Anaconda, Montana

These probable cause arrests occurred along Highway 395.

In a separate event in Burns, Oregon, at approximately 5:50 p.m., Oregon State Police arrested the following individual:

  • Joseph Donald O’Shaughnessy, age 45, Cottonwood, Arizona

All of the named defendants face a federal felony charge of conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation, or threats, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 372.

We continue to work with Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward and his deputies; Oregon State Police; and the United States Attorney’s Office to address any further outstanding issues. As the investigation is ongoing, we cannot comment further at this time.

All defendants should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

The timeline for the Oregon rancher-arsonists

Malheur Refuge sign
Photo by Judith Bell

With the break-in and occupation by armed protesters of the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon grabbing national attention it’s a good time to take a detailed look at what actually happened over the last 22 years that led up to this incident.

Some of the protesters appearing in front of news cameras repeatedly refer to the arrest, convictions, and sentencing of Dwight Hammond, Jr., and his son, Steven Hammond who set fires on Bureau of Land Management property not far from the Wildlife Refuge.

Dwight and Steven Hammond.
Dwight and Steven Hammond.

In addition to raising cattle on their own property, the Hammonds paid a small fee for their cattle to graze on BLM land. In 2015 the rate was $1.69 per animal per month. There is no charge for calves. If they were paying open market rates instead of taxpayer subsidized rates it would cost them about 12 times as much.

There is a lot of misinformation being thrown around about why or if the Hammonds lit fires on public land. An example occurred on January 4 when CNN reporter Paul Vercammen mischaracterized the crimes committed by the two ranchers that triggered the protests and federal property take over. Mr. Vercammen, in explaining what led to the occupation, described the actions of the Hammonds as “arson on their own property”, when in fact on at least two occasions they illegally set fires on public land administered by the BLM.

Below is the timeline that we have developed from court documents, information provided by U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Gerri Badden, and other sources provided by some of our loyal readers.

You will find that on two occasions, in 2001 and 2006, the Hammonds set fires that endangered wildland firefighters, forcing them to take evasive action when their safety was compromised. In one case they conscripted a 13-year old to help ignite a fire who was too successful. He found himself surrounded by flames and fearing for his life. A group of three hunters, whose location was known to the Hammonds, were also threatened by one of the fires and had to hurriedly evacuate the area without having time to pack up the equipment at their campsite. The Hammonds also had several previous run-ins with the legal system that until now have not been general knowledge.

The Timeline

1994, August 5 — Dwight and Steven Hammond were arrested and spent two nights in custody. Federal employees of the Malheur National Wildlife refuge were attempting to build a fence on refuge property to keep the Hammonds’ cattle from trespassing on federal land. (There is some dispute about this exact date, but court records show that it occurred on August 5, 1994.)

From High Country News:

On the day the fence was to be built, the crew and refuge officials arrived to find Hammond had parked his Caterpillar scraper squarely on the boundary line and disabled it, removing the battery and draining fuel lines. When a tow truck arrived to move it, Dwight Hammond showed up, leaped to the controls of the scraper and hit a lever that lowered the bucket, narrowly missing another special agent. Meanwhile, said [Special Agent Earl M.] Kisler, Steve Hammond shouted obscenities at federal officials. Neither Hammond resisted arrest.

The original charge was a felony, “Forcibly impede, intimidate and interfere with federal officers engaged in the performance of their official duties”.

The High Country News reported that many sources applied a great deal of pressure on the BLM and the Secretary of the Interior, protesting the arrests. Some employees received phone calls and death threats at their homes.

1994, August 15 — The charges were reduced to a misdemeanor for both Steven and Dwight Hammond, to “Interfering with Government Employees and Private Parties”.

1997, July 16 the “Interfering” cases were dismissed by the U.S. Attorney’s office.

1999 — Steven was arrested and convicted for interfering with lawful users of public lands.  On Oct. 9, 1999, he interfered with a lawful hunt being conducted by a hunting guide and his party.  On March 9, 2000, he was sentenced to 3 years of probation.

2001, September 30 — Hardie-Hammond Fire.

According to testimony from a commercial hunting guide, his two clients, and Dusty Hammond the grandson to Dwight Hammond and nephew to Steven Hammond, their family and friends were hunting when shots were fired from the group into a herd of deer on BLM land. The guide said four bucks were crippled, but the Hammond hunting party did not track or collect any deer.

Later, Steven, with Dwight at his side, handed out boxes of matches to everyone in the party including 13-year old Dusty. Their instructions were to “light up the whole country on fire”. They went off in different directions and began igniting fires, but Dusty was by himself, following a path pointed out by Steven. He was at first unsuccessful in getting the vegetation to ignite, but after Steven showed him how to use several of the “strike anywhere” matches together, he was creating eight to ten-foot flames which at one point surrounded and entrapped him causing him to fear for his life —  “I thought I was going to get burned up”, he said. The fires were lit along the line between their property and public land, and spread onto public land.

Gerri Badden, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office, said the motive for setting the fires was to cover up the illegal slaughter of the deer which was witnessed by the hunting guide, the guide’s two hunters, and was affirmed by Dusty.

Two hours after igniting the fires Steven called the BLM to report that they were going to burn invasive species.

The hunting guide saw that the fire was moving toward their camp and was concerned about his safety and that of his two clients from Utah. The three of them evacuated from the area without even taking the time to break down and remove their equipment at the camp. As they drove away they were able to see the flames of the fire in the area they had left. Testimony in the trial indicated that the Hammonds were aware of the location of the guide and his clients before lighting the fires since they flew their airplane over the area earlier that morning.

Later in the day Dwight and Steven took to the sky again in their airplane to examine the burnt area, telling Dusty they were going to check to see if the fire got rid of the juniper, which is an invasive species that robs water from grasses grazed by cattle.

Dusty said that when the Hammond hunting party returned to the house after setting the fires, “Dwight told me to keep my mouth shut, that nobody needed to know about the fire”. Eight years later 21-year old Dusty told investigators why he waited so long to speak up about the arson, saying that if Steven heard he provided information he would come to Dusty’s front door and kill him. 

The writers of the sentencing report said the setting of the fires created a “conscious or reckless risk of death or serious bodily injury” to individuals including Dusty Hammond. The fires burned 139 acres of federal land.

Continue reading “The timeline for the Oregon rancher-arsonists”