By Roxanna Jarvis
ALAMEDA – Although a homeless woman was held in custody here this week in connection to Berkeley’s Netivot Shalom Synagogue fire, some doubt was presented in court that could mean she’s not the guilty party—she didn’t match the description provided by the lone witness in the case.
The incident made headlines after Berkeley was the victim of a string of synagogue fires. According to Assistant Chief Keith May of the Berkeley Fire Department, there have been 10 trash can fires in Berkeley since the start of 2020.
On Aug. 6, around 9 p.m., the Berkeley Fire Department received a call about a fire at Netivot Shalom Synagogue. The fire occurred behind the synagogue and involved the suspect lighting a piece of cardboard on top of a recycling bin with a lighter.
According to DDA Veronica Rios Reddick, the surveillance video provided by the synagogue shows the suspect setting fire to the cardboard and placing it on the bin. The suspect was also wearing a distinct outfit.
The following day, Shameeka Adams was arrested at Ohlone Park on suspicion of arson and providing false identification to the police, according to Officer Bryan White of the Berkeley Police Department. She was wearing the same outfit as the suspect in the synagogue’s surveillance video, he said.
On Aug. 12, Adams was arraigned on the charges of arson and assault by means likely to produce great bodily injury (GBI). The hearing was held through the video communications app Zoom, with all participants present virtually.
At the start of the hearing, Adams’ attorney, Assistant Public Defender Richard Foxall, made the case to lower Adams’ bail from $55,000 to $20,000, arguing that there was no apparent damage to the building, and that the description of the suspect provided by the witness at the scene “would in no way shape or form describe Adams other than the gender.”
As stated in the police report, the witness claimed she had seen the people around who lit the trash can on fire but does not know them personally. According to the witness, the woman who ignited the fire was blonde and white. Adams, however, has black hair and is a Black woman.
“The arrest happened the next day based upon clothing, which, obviously, clothing can change person-to-person,” maintained Foxall. “We’re well aware, at least in my office, our clients are often receiving clothes that have been discarded by other people according to their homeless status.”
Subsequently, DDA Reddick asked for Adams’ bail to remain at $55,000, with a stay-away order from the synagogue. Reddick next presented Adams’ past criminal charges, which were arson, a battery on a peace officer, and an assault by means likely to produce great bodily injury—all which occurred in 2019 (two misdemeanors and one felony).
Foxall countered Reddick, stating that serious problems exist, based on the facts of the case.
“I think under the circumstances there may be some coincidental issue of something that happened in Ms. Adams’ past, but based on these facts I think there are serious problems of proof,” noted Foxall.
The judge, Delia Trevino, concluded that Adams was a threat to the community.
Judge Trevino admitted that, while she was aware of Adams’ felony assault charge in 2019, she was “surprised and disappointed” to hear about Adams’ other 2019 charges. “In the last year it sounds like Ms. Adams has had a bit of trouble,” remarked Trevino.
Judge Trevino denied Adams the ability to be released on her own recognizance and kept her bail at the amount of $55,000. She further ordered Adams to stay 100 yards away from Netivot Shalom Synagogue.
According to Berkeleyside, Rabbi Chai Levy, the head of the congregation, does not believe the fire was a hate crime. Levy observed that Adams has been seen around the synagogue before and has received food from their kitchen. It is to her understanding that Adams may have a mental illness.
At the closing of Adams’ arraignment, Foxall asked for a plea of not guilty and a speedy preliminary hearing as Adams was heard asking, “How long do I gotta stay in jail?” Foxall informed Adams she will be in custody unless she bails out. Judge Trevino added that Foxall was to speak with her by video later.
Adams could be heard responding, but her audio abruptly cut off. “Thank you, we’re in recess,” announced Judge Trevino. Adams will be back in court on Sept. 10 at 8:45 a.m. in Department 713.
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