By Brinda Kalita and Oliver Camarena
WOODLAND, CA – The arson trial for James Pulford wrapped up in Yolo County Superior court this week, and the jury began its deliberation.
Pulford is being charged with committing arson after allegedly starting a fire in a motel in West Sacramento, something his defense said he could not have deliberately done because the fire made him homeless again.
Pulford, a homeless man, was living in this motel under California’s pandemic homeless programs that supplied the unhoused with a shelter to stay in during the pandemic.
West Sac Police Officer Jesus Gonzalez, who shared that, when he was dispatched to the motel in West Sacramento, he had seen heavy smoke coming from the motel rooms. He then notified guests in the hotel to leave as soon as possible.
After successfully helping the guests to evacuate from the motel, Officer J. Gonzalez went to a gas station about 0.2 miles away. It was at this gas station he saw Pulford, who the officer said smelled of smoke and alcohol and had soot marks all over his hand.
Officer J. Gonzalez then started to question Pulford, who agreeably answered all of his questions, and then he confiscated Pulford’s backpack and bike.
In cross-examination, Deputy Public Defender Joseph Gocke attempted to discredit the fact that Pulford’s odor and the marks all over his hands were due to smoke and soot by reminding the officer that Pulford was homeless.
However, West Sac Police Officer J. Gonzalez revealed that at one point he thought the marks on Pulford’s hands were burn marks, and was going to ask if Pulford needed help for his injuries.
The next witness called to the stand was West Sac Police Officer Marta Gonzalez, who during questioning by Deputy District Attorney Carolyn Palumbo said the bag confiscated by Pulford including “many” lighters along with cigars and a BB gun, which she found suspicious.
Her suspicions about the BB gun were later cleared though, after one of her fellow officers identified it to be a pellet gun rather than a firearm.
During the cross-examination, DPD Gocke focused on emphasizing the lighters were accompanied with many tobacco products and that they were just in Pulford’s bag so that he could smoke.
The last witness that was called to the stand was West Sac Police Officer Scott Farnsworth, who said he was one of the first responders at the scene of the fire. When he arrived, he said he had conversations with some of the gentlemen who had attempted to put the fire out, and he recognized some of the residents at the scene.
Officer Farnsworth then responded to the gas station call and arrived after Officer J. Gonzalez. He mentioned how he had confronted Pulford at the station, who he said smelled like alcohol and smoke.
Officer Farnsworth also added that, after identifying Pulford at the station, he helped question him. He revealed that, during his questioning, Pulford was quite agreeable and answered the questions right away.
Officer Farnworth was then shown a video clip of a man exiting a hotel room during the time of the fire. Farnsworth then identified the man as Pulford by his clothing.
Then Officer Farnsworth discussed the conditions of the motel rooms during the fire. Farnsworth had traveled about three to four feet inside one of the hotel rooms before coming across smoke, and that it was quite overpowering and difficult to breathe.
He emphasized that he was only in the room for about a couple of seconds before being forced out due to the poor air. He never returned after going in that one time
Additionally, Officer Farnsworth highlighted the small size of the hotel room, 15×15 feet.
DPD Gocke then started his cross-examination by asking Officer Farnsworth if he was aware of the number of fire personnel at the scene. Officer Farnsworth responded in the negative.
DPD Gocke asked Officer Farnsworth about the likelihood of older men, such as Pulford, losing their abilities to see, smell and sense things correctly, to which Farnsworth responded in the affirmative.
DDA Palumbo then reaffirmed with Officer Farnsworth that Pulford was not facing difficulties in seeing, smelling, hearing, and sensing.
DPD Gocke confirmed with Officer Farnsworth that Pulford had burn marks on his hands that were not treated at the time of the incident.
The two parties then began their closing statements, starting with DDA Palumbo.
DDA Palumbo addressed the jury and reminded them that at the start of the trial there was an emphasis placed on homeless sympathy and empathy. However, she also reminded them that they must not let bias, including sympathy or public opinion, affect their ultimate decision.
She then specified that there is only one charge being brought forth, arson on an inhabited structure or property.
She laid out the evidence that was brought forth throughout the trial, claiming there is direct evidence that Room 11 of the motel, the room occupied by Pulford, was where the fire was started and referenced the video evidence taken showing Pulford, along with many other residents of the motel, evacuating as the fire spread.
She moved on to detail how the smoke alarm in the room had been taken down and tampered with. There was masking tape wrapped around the smoke detector, making it inoperable. That smoke detector was confirmed to be in the room 10 days prior to the incident.
The video evidence showed Pulford leaving the motel with his belongings, which was confirmed by the police when they found Pulford at a nearby gas station.
The arson investigator found no evidence or issues that the fire could have been started on its own through electrical problems or any other sort, such as cigarettes or cigars, painting the picture that the fire was caused intentionally, not accidentally.
She then concluded with the statement that Pulford packed his belongings, made no effort to help with the fire, made no effort to call 911, and made no effort to help evacuate other residents. He merely left for a nearby gas station, she said.
DPD Gocke then began restating that Pulford is a 67-year-old homeless man that had been sick that year and pondered why he would potentially set ablaze the only shelter he had, forcing him back onto the rainy streets. He recapped the earlier answer to his question posed at Officer Gonzalez about how, generally, older people’s senses start to deteriorate or dull as they age.
He also went on to talk about the length of time spent by the fire investigators investigating this case and how they didn’t check the smoke detectors of other rooms and spent only around 30 minutes investigating before drawing a conclusion.
He also noted the most injured person to come out of all this was Pulford himself, who did not receive treatment at the time.
He reminded the jury its job is to find if Pulford was acting maliciously while also making the point that the backpack that Pulford had didn’t have other clothes for him to wear. He then made the point that the shopping cart that was left in the motel room was full of food, something that Pulford would have brought with him if he had maliciously started the fire.
DPD Gocke concluded by saying that the video evidence of an older man with health issues, along with the short investigation of arson into this matter, is not enough to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt and reminded the jury of the presumption of innocence.
In her rebuttal, DDA Palumbo said the court had heard no evidence that Pulford had any issues seeing, hearing, smelling, or feeling. All of his senses were intact and there were things he could’ve used in the motel room to see, hear, or smell the fire.
She used DPD Gocke’s point about it being rainy that day to say that conditions were not “perfect” or even ideal for a fire to have been started, but that it had been done anyway, alluding to the point of maliciousness being proven.
DDA Palumbo then finished by explaining that there is no other reasonable explanation for the fire other than it being intentionally started by Pulford.
The jury was then released, late Thursday, to deliberate.