Suspect arrested in Big Hill fire

Christina O'Haver, The Union Democrat

A Sonora man was arrested Friday in connection with a fire that destroyed a Big Hill Road home on Thanksgiving.

David Keith Keuning, 49, was booked into Tuolumne County Jail on suspicion of arson, after an investigation by the Tuolumne County Fire Investigation Unit and District Attorney's Office.

Keuning was arraigned in Superior Court on Monday and plead not guilty.

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Matt Gilbert said witness statements and follow-up interviews linked Keuning to the Nov. 22 evening fire on the 16800 block of Big Hill Road.

The Sheriff's Office served a warrant at Keuning's residence, which is next door to the property where the fire occurred.

Keuning was still in custody Tuesday morning on $40,000 bail.

The home, which was vacant at the time of the blaze, belonged to Sonora resident Beatrice Hatler Stokes.

She said her father built the home in 1950 before he died, using lumber from the family's mill.

Stokes and her family had done extensive work to the home to get it ready for her stepdaughter to move into. It was nearly complete when it went up in flames.

"It meant a lot to us," Stokes said. "It just breaks our hearts. It was the last of my dad."

The fire is believed to have started outside the front door, she said.

Stokes, who also lives on Big Hill Road, said Keuning had been her friend for a long time but began acting strangely more than a year ago.

She said he would scream at her and people he barely knew. She finally told him to leave her alone.

"He turned really weird," he said. "I hadn't done anything to him."

Stokes lost a trailer on the same property about a year ago, after a fire started outside its front door.

"I've been living in fear since the second fire got started," she said.

Keuning's preliminary hearing is scheduled for Dec. 21.

The Union Democrat
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