Homeless Woman Sets Fire; Judge Condemns Arson in Light of Vicious Wildfires Across California

By Özge Terzioğlu

SACRAMENTO – A court here scolded a defendant who admitted setting a fire—even one that didn’t cause any real damage—in light of the massive and vicious wildfires raging across California.

About a month ago, on August 5, defendant Amber McClain set a fire that burned 200 by 20 feet worth of brush and seasonal plants in a forest land area at the intersection of Croydon Way and Mather Field Road in Rancho Cordova, located in Sacramento County.

The defendant pleaded no contest Monday in Sacramento County Superior Court to her felony violation of PC section 452 (c), recklessly causing a fire.

When reading the facts of the case, Deputy District Attorney Adrianne McMillan noted that the defendant was identified by several witnesses, and when she was contacted by police she had many different lighters in her purse.

The judge was prompted to ask if there was a mental health issue he should know about, because he was flabbergasted as to why the defendant would carry so many lighters on her person.

Assistant Public Defender Tatiana Cottam replied that “homeless people tend to have a lot of lighters, your honor.”

The judge asked defendant McClain if she was homeless. She responded, “I’m currently homeless, but I’m trying to change that.” She noted that she has a social worker who is in the process of helping her.

Quite shocked at this case of arson during one of the worst wildfire seasons on record in California state history, the judge reprimanded the defendant by reminding her that “obviously, California is burning with a lot of fires that [firefighters and police] are trying to attend to, and I’m very concerned releasing you in light of what’s happening, considering the number of devices you had with you.

“You can’t have any of those devices. We cannot have you setting fires in the state of California,” the court added.

When asked if she is currently on probation, the defendant responded that she is not. ADA Cottam corrected her and said that she is technically on probation for misdemeanors acquired in 2018.

The judge sentenced the defendant to five years of probation, ordering her to stay 300 yards away from the scene of the fire at the intersection of Croydon Way and Mather Field Road in Rancho Cordova, stay away from Centennial Estates Mobile Home Park, pay restitution to JD Management Company, not possess any firearms or ammunition, and not have possession of any incendiary devices at any time for any reason at all.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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22 Comments

  1. Keith Olsen

    The judge sentenced the defendant to five years of probation, ordering her to stay 300 yards away from the scene of the fire at the intersection of Croydon Way and Mather Field Road in Rancho Cordova, stay away from Centennial Estates Mobile Home Park, pay restitution to JD Management Company, not possess any firearms or ammunition, and not have possession of any incendiary devices at any time for any reason at all.

    The judge ordered her so that should be comfort enough so everyone can sleep well at night in this fire season.

    1. David Greenwald

      Pretty standard stay away order for a probation case. The way it works is if she violates the order, she can be immediately arrested and potentially face custody time. In a sense, I have always found such orders a bit weird, as though a repeat offense is likely to occur at the same location.

        1. David Greenwald

          Only if she wants to go to prison. A standard condition of probation is obey all laws. So she would have the underlying offense and a violation of probation.

        2. Alan Miller

          Only if she wants to go to prison.

          We’re talking about a mentally ill person with a compulsion to light fires.  When you have a compulsion, consequences can be irrelevant as a deterrent.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Did you not pick up on the fact that a homeless person, as a condition of probation, has to PAY restitution?  The other conditions (as cited) looked reasonable, but not that one.

         

        1. Keith Olsen

          But David, the judge ordered her to pay just as he ordered her to stop starting fires.  The public should all be calmed that she will comply because she doesn’t want to go to prison.

  2. Alan Miller

    I’m not getting the feeling we are getting to the core of the problem here . . . a person loose who likes to set fires . . . has her mental condition been addressed?  . . . is society safe with her on the loose in this condition?

  3. Robb Davis

    I think we all “get it” Keith.  We disinvest in mental health care for two generations in this state and use promising tools like mental health court sparingly if at all.  Then we throw up our hands and cry “why are people who are severely mentally ill roaming our streets?”

    Seriously?  This person is not safe to themselves or others but we don’t have systems in place that can help such folks.  These are policy choices, and they have been in place for a long time.

    1. Keith Olsen

      But in this person’s case they are out starting fires which is akin to terrorism.  In my opinion we can’t just let her go free on her own cognizance and hope everything goes well.
      Check this guy out:

      A man was arrested for starting six brush fires along a Portland, Ore., freeway, just hours after being released for setting another fire.
      Police in Portland arrested Domingo Lopez, who they found walking along the west side of Interstate 205, police said in a statement, after they discovered a half-dozen more fires.
      The 45-year-old had only just been released after his arrest Sunday for setting a brush fire with a Molotov gasoline bomb.

      https://www.aol.com/man-arrested-starting-six-brush-125332211.html

    2. Alan Miller

      Not sure the disagreement.  I’m in favor of massively increasing care for the severely mentally ill.  I’m against releasing mentally-ill people who are likely to harm others due to untreated behaviors, in this case a tendency to light fires.

      The fact that this judges’ only tools will not help either the person or public is a travesty.

      1. Robb Davis

        Not sure there is a disagreement. Don’s point below is well taken, we do not know what her issues are but I DO know that there are not many options for people facing mental health challenges and I guess I would be surprised if she did not have some significant health issues.

        I don’t like the jump to “terrorism”.  It is not akin to anything except someone who clearly has issues that need to be dealt with.  We seem to be willing to incarcerate people like this at very high costs but unwilling to think about underlying issues and how to deal with them.

        Fining and then incarcerating this person are not solutions in any way.  They are not even band aids. They are the proverbial “kicking the can down the road.”

  4. Don Shor

    There is no evidence presented in this article that she is mentally ill. The judge appears to have considered her lucid and that she understands the terms of probation. I can’t really determine from the article what alternatives the judge had. The terms are pretty specific and detailed and I assume the judge considered that she understands the consequences of failing to comply.

    1. Keith Olsen

      The terms are pretty specific and detailed and I assume the judge considered that she understands the consequences of failing to comply.

      And we the public also understand the possible consequences if she fails to comply.

      1. David Greenwald

        You’re already having her fail. Which leads to a much broader question – why have a system where so many are simply set up to fail and the public pays the consequence and the alternative is to spend $85,000 a year or more to incarcerate someone.

    2. David Greenwald

      It was a plea agreement, so all sides had agreed on the course of action. The judge asked if there was a mental illness, the public defender explained it away.

        1. David Greenwald

          It’s possible, I don’t know enough about the case. It seems to me if we are willing to spend $85,000 on incarceration, we should be willing to spend some percentage of that to avoid the need for it.

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