A transient man suspected of intentionally starting a fire in Sonora Creek under the Intake Grill on South Washington Street last week was arrested Monday night after he was identified as a suspect by surveillance footage and witness interviews.
On Sept. 6, a small fire was located in the underground creek bed beneath the Intake Grill about 1 p.m.. The fire wafted acrid smoke to Coffill Park, Mi Pueblo, and on the backside of the Intake Grill on South Stewart Street.
Police officers on scene used a bucket filled with creek water to extinguish some of the fire while firefighters investigated light smoke that drifted to the interior of the Intake Grill.
Portable fire extinguishers in the hands of the firefighters extinguished the remainder of the fire. Four engine crews with about a dozen firefighters responded to the call from Sonora City, Columbia, Jamestown and Mono Village.
Sonora Creek flows through downtown Sonora before it joins Woods Creek further downstream below SaveMart.
On the date of the fire, the cause and origin of the flames were a mystery, Sonora Police Department Chief Turu VanderWiel said.
But witness statements of suspicious people at the scene, as well as video surveillance, identified a known homeless man as suspect.
VanderWiel said homeless individuals and transients had previously been trespassed from the small crawl space where the creek bed is accessible from South Stewart Street. The man identified as the suspect, he added, was not known to be living there nor had he ever been trespassed from that area.
The man was found by an officer at Stockton Road and Mill Villa Court about 8 p.m. Monday night, VanderWiel said.
During a subsequent interrogation, the man admitted to starting the fire with a propane torch, and indicated that his decision to burn items under the Intake Grill was the result of a “grudge between him and another transient known to frequent that area.”
“We firmly believe that it was an intentional act based on the evidence and the results of the interview,” VanderWiel said.
The burned items under the Intake Grill were indicative of items that had been left behind from former homeless squatters in the creek, he said. The fire was burning a pile of trash or debris and a wooden support beam for the Intake Grill building.
The man said that he acted alone, VanderWiel said.
Stanley Jesse Wooden, 57, was arrested on suspicion of arson of an inhabited building and booked into the Tuolumne County Jail on $75,000 bail.
Wooden remained in the custody of the Tuolumne County Jail Tuesday afternoon.
VanderWiel said he was charged with the arson of an inhabited building because the fire was on a portion of the structure that was inhabited.
“It is reasonable to believe that occupants of the structure could have been in grave danger,” he said.