By Kelsey Stewart
In Department 11, Juan Manuel Vega, Jr., underwent a preliminary hearing for suspected arson of property and attempted car theft.
Deputy Public Defender John Sage represented Mr. Vega, as several witnesses were called to the stand to testify by Deputy District Attorney Michael Vroman.
The first witness to testify was Officer Steven Cueva with the City of Woodland Police Department. He related the narrative that on March 15, 2019, at approximately 3:50 PM he responded to a call that on 215 California Street, behind Walmart Neighborhood Market, there were large boxes on fire. He utilized surveillance cameras to identify a subject with a black hat, grey sweater and dark pants throw an unknown object in the vicinity of the boxes that began to smoke approximately six to ten minutes later, eventually causing $5,000 in damages for Walmart.
He identified the subject on camera as Mr. Vega.
At approximately 10 o’clock at night, Officer Cueva was dispatched to one block away from Walmart. Another officer alerted Officer Cueva that Mr. Vega was suspected at the location. There, he found the individual in the same outfit. From Mr. Vega’s backpack, they recovered several types of lighters including a torch lighter and butane.
Deputy Public Defender John Sage cross-examined the witness, asking if the fire department was able to identify the cause of the fire. Mr. Vega did not know.
Officer Kent Chan next took the stand, a sworn peace officer with City of Woodland for 14 years. On March 15, he was involved in two arson investigations.
Officer Chan spoke to a friend of Mr. Vega’s who told him that he had met with the individual that night. The friend testified that he was told by Mr. Vega to lie for him if the police ask about fires; he was instructed by Mr. Vega to cover for him and say that he was with him the whole night.
Approximately ten minutes before the conversation with Mr. Vega’s friend, Officer Chan responded to another fire affecting a palm tree and nearby vegetation.
The next officer to testify was Officer Richard Wright who testified to an incident earlier this year concerning Mr. Vega. The officer was called at approximately 8:15 AM to respond to an alleged attempted car theft. A high-school student was warming up her car in the driveway when an individual approached her car. She stated the individual made eye contact with her, tried the door handle and knocked on the window. She then drove away.
She gave a description of the individual detailing that he was either White or Hispanic with a black beanie, a grey sweater and backpack.
Officer Cueva was then called back to the stand as he responded to a call at around 4:45 PM that same day. A neighbor spotted a man fitting that description, and Officer Cueva arrived to find Mr. Vega. They conversed, and Mr. Vega stated that he was getting picked up by a friend in that same area. He saw a car running and assumed that was the car of his friend; as soon as he realized that the person in the car was not his friend, he stepped back.
After searching Mr. Vega’s person, they found a Nissan key in his pocket. Mr. Vega said he did not own a Nissan, but it belonged to an unidentified friend.
The prosecution rested, and the defense then presented his closing argument. He suggested that the police have some agenda against Mr. Vega since the evidence is very slim in both cases and is circumstantial. He related that Mr. Vega was smoking a cigarette with his friend at the time of the second fire. Regarding the request for his friend to lie, the defense argued that Mr. Vega was concerned he would get accused for something he did not do.
The court ruled that Mr. Vega will be held to answer on the count of arson of property, but the charge regarding attempted car theft will be dismissed.
An arraignment for Mr. Vega will be on June 13 at 9 AM in Department 11.