Jan. 11--Zane Wallace Peterson, the former firefighter accused of starting the deadly Clover Fire in September and six other blazes, was caught through the use of surveillance cameras and tracking devices placed on his pickup and car weeks after the blaze, court documents unsealed today at the request of the Record Searchlight revealed.
Although the global positioning system was not in place until after the Clover Fire, it was that monitoring device, as well as some eyewitness accounts, that tied the Happy Valley resident to most of the other fires, the documents show.
Redding attorney Walt McNeill, representing the Record Searchlight, was successful in having the Peterson's arrest warrant unsealed by retired Superior Court Judge James Ruggiero.
The 29-year-old Peterson, a former U.S. Forest Service firefighter who was fired in 2012 for theft, is suspected of setting seven wildland fires from September to November in Shasta County.
But the Clover Fire was by far the worst.
That 8,073-acre fire, which burned 60 homes and 130 other buildings, claimed the life of 55-year-old Brian Henry of Igo.
It caused an estimated $65 million in damage and cost about $7.3 million to put out.
The unsealed documents said Peterson, who is charged with murder and multiple counts of arson, was captured on a surveillance camera driving a 2001 pickup westbound on Cloverdale Road at 12:20 p.m., about one minute before the Sept. 9 Clover Fire, which had two points of origin, erupted.
A second surveillance camera recorded his pickup eastbound on Clear Creek Road at Honeybee, which was the other point of the fire's origin, around 12:21 p.m.
His pickup was the only vehicle seen that passed by both origin points at the start of the fires, which quickly merged into one.
The passenger side of the window was rolled down and the driver's side window was about one-third down, but it's not known what he used, such as a match or matchbook, to start the Clover Fire, the report said.
According to the reports, an investigator met on Sept. 16 with Peterson, who was curious why Cal Fire wanted to talk to him about the Clover Fire, which had been contained just the day before.
In that interview, Peterson admitted to driving through the fire area before the fires began, remembering it as a "north wind day."
"Peterson stated 'that was a scary day' and that he did not learn about the fire until he left a pawn shop he visited that day.
But a video surveillance camera that captured footage of his pickup on Highway 273 as he was driving to the pawn shop indicates he would have "a clear view of the fire on Clear Creek Road and Cloverdale Road," an investigator wrote.
Peterson also told investigators it had been a rough time for the family because his niece had recently died.
An analysis of Peterson's cell phone records contained in the documents shows he texted a friend after the interview, writing "quick and easy with the investigation," according to the documentation.
The analysis of text messages he sent also shows he was having financial, as well as physical, emotional and addiction problems, and wanted to return to firefighting.
"I'm having a hell of a time staying straight," he says in one text message. "Not feeling good. Put some apps in today. Hope I get a job soon."
The documents also show a man matching Peterson's description and driving the pickup registered to his father showed up Sept. 18 during a field briefing of firefighters at Clear Creek and Cloverdale roads.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Dave Hotchkiss said the man said there were some "smokes" (flare-ups) in the center of the burn area and that they needed to send firefighters into the area with water pumps.
The man, who was wearing a Mendocino National Forest Grindstone Ranger District hat, told Hotchkiss he worked for the district and El Dorado National Forest, but was out on a back injury after having been a firefighter for nine years.
Peterson was a former firefighter in the North State and was employed by the federal agency from May 15, 2005 to Oct. 22, 2012 as a fire engine operator, fire officials have said.