Cal Fire law enforcement agents seized 49,000 pounds of fireworks and arrested seven people in late May following a years-long investigation into an illegal firework importation and distribution network in Northern California that stretched from the Bay Area to Copperopolis.
Michael Mohler, deputy director of communication with Cal Fire, said the confiscation represented one of the largest seizures of fireworks in state history.
“We seize thousands of pounds a year in normal enforcement, but there's been nothing close to it in state history with this type of operation,” he said. “The distribution may have been mainly focused on Northern California, but I can say statewide people were probably seeing these fireworks in their neighborhoods.”
The illegal firework network took investigators across a broad swath of northern California, stretching from Oakland and Hayward in Alameda County and Walnut Creek in Contra Costa County, to Modesto and Salida in Stanislaus County, and to Copperopolis in Calaveras County.
Mohler said he did not have information available indicating what amounts of fireworks were found at the specific locations, but thousands of fireworks, loaded into individual boxes, were found at locations where 10 warrants were served, he said.
Photographs of the loads show a range of different firework labels including Snake Bite, Freak Show, King of the Street, Mastermind, and some with question marks on the boxes.
The items seized included a range of aerial fireworks including bottle rockets, firecrackers and Roman Candles.
In addition, $115,000 in cash, computers, cell phones, firearms and personal items were found at the sites, a Cal Fire press release said. There was no immediate estimate on the value of the seized fireworks, Mohler said.
Mohler said the distribution ring has been existence for over 30 years, and has been insulated from exposure to law enforcement because many of the suspects are related to one another.
The first person to be arrested was Donald Anthony Cerasi, 75, of the 3100 block of Conestoga Trail in Copperopolis, on May 22 at about 7 a.m.
Sgt. Rachelle Whiting said one location in the Diamond XX area of Copperopolis, made up of 20-acre parcel ranch estates off Highway 4, was served a warrant as a result of the investigation.
Whiting was not sure if the 3100 block of Conestoga Trail residence where Donald Anthony Cerasi was living was included as one of the warrant sites, but said at least one was served on May 22.
The Explosive Ordnance Disposal team was on standby during the service of the warrant, she said.
Donald Anthony Cerasi and the six other suspects arrested over the next eight days were all booked into the Calaveras County Jail, jail records indicated, but they all have since bonded out of the facility.
Leon Anthony Cerasi, 50, of the 5500 block of Pountsmonth Drive, Salida; Maria Robles San Cerasi, 30, of the 2300 block of Janna Avenue, Modesto; and Larry Lista, 68, of the 5300 block of Oxbow Court, Salida, were all arrested about 1:30 p.m. on the 5500 block of Pountsmouth Drive in Salida on May 23.
Jack Gage Schroll, 67, of the 2500 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland, was also arrested on the 700 block of 26th Street in Oakland on May 23.
On May 24, Michael Carlos Solorio, 46, of the 1400 block of Pecos Avenue, Modesto, was arrested on the 3200 block of Crownview Drive in Ceres.
On May 31, Tonya Adele Schroll, 63, was booked at the Calaveras County Jail lobby.
All except for Lista were charged with felony conspiracy charge, with Tonya Adele Scroll also having the additional felony charge of making a destructive device without a permit.
The suspects have been charged with a range of misdemeanors, including selling unclassed fireworks, unlawfully storing fireworks, giving fireworks to an unlicensed person, possession of fireworks without a permit, and violation of a state fire marshal fireworks regulation.
Solorio was additionally charged with transporting hazardous material and transportation of hazardous material without a placard.
“A lot of them have the same last name. There was definitely a connection, not only with family, but with people moving together and living together,” Mohler said. “They probably distributed statewide through this network. These people have been working together for a long time.”
Mohler described Jack Gage Schroll as the “head person” in the network that had “been in it the longest” over the known 30-year history of the group.
Cal Fire law enforcement was assisted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the California Highway Patrol, the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office, and the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office in the investigation, the press release said.
Mohler said the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office was involved in the investigation and not only served warrants but was an “integral part of assisting with the investigation.”
Over three years ago, Cal Fire received a tip regarding illegal fireworks, Mohler said, and the investigation culminated in the warrant services and arrests in the past weeks.
The information gathering techniques involved would not be revealed until a trial, Mohler said. Cal Fire touted the seizure of the fireworks as an effort to crack down on illegal firework use and fires that result from their use, especially on the Independence Day holiday.
Fireworks account for two out of every five reported fires in the U.S. in a typical year, and fireworks start 18,500 fires (including 1,300 structure fires and 300 vehicle fires), cause three deaths, 40 civilian injuries and $43 million in property damage, during an average year, the press release stated.
The press release also stated that Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration is seeking a long-term funding fix with the California Legislature for the disposal of confiscated illegal fireworks, and included a proposal to increase funding for abatement efforts in the May budget revision.
“It definitely had an impact. It’s such an issue that, even though it’s a large seizure, we’re putting a dent but were also sending a message,” Mohler said. “If you are caught using illegal fireworks, either purchasing or lighting them off, you can get anything from a ticket to being arrested and serving jail time.”