A suspected serial arsonist who also worked as an inmate firefighter for four months in 2007 following a methamphetamine and gun conviction kept his face hidden during an arraignment Wednesday, and tried to run out of court once the proceedings ended.
Damon Anthony Pashilk, 40, of Clearlake appeared in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Andrew Blum, but allegedly passed out before the 1:15 session. He was arrested during a traffic stop and taken into custody without incident, Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said.
Blum appointed a public defender for Pashilk, who did not enter a plea and remains in custody on $5 million bail. When the list of 19 charges was read out, Pashilk refused to look up, and only nodded to communicate that he had heard and understood the charges filed against him. He is expected to enter a plea when he returns to court on Sept. 7.
Aware that emotions are running high in Lake County, Pashilk’s public defender urged people to remember that the suspect is “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” Saying that he met Pashilk Tuesday, but was only officially appointed to the case Wednesday, the public defender refused to comment on the suspect’s demeanor or state of mind or provide details about the case itself.
Cal Fire crews have contained 40 percent of the 4,000-acre Clayton Fire, which destroyed 175 structures. Officials on Wednesday lifted some evacuation orders in portions of Lower Lake in Lake County.
Lake County Deputy District Attorney Richard Hinchcliff told NBC Bay Area that Pashilk will be charged with arson regarding the Clayton Fire with a special enhancement because the area was still under a state of emergency from last year’s Valley Fire. He will be charged with arson for starting 12 fires — one of which burned a couple of acres and an uninhabited mobile home — and attempting to start one more, he said.
In addition, Hinchcliff said Pashilk be charged with possession of methamphetamine and driving with a suspended license.
Officials have yet to reveal a motive or the evidence linking Pashilk to the fires. When asked for this information Wednesday, officials said only that their case was “very strong.” They did say, however, that Pashilk didn’t target anyone specifically and is believed to have acted alone.
Meanwhile, court documents showed that Pashilk’s car was caught on surveillance video at several fire sites and GPS placed his vehicle at the location where the Clayton Fire sparked. Cal Fire officials said Pashilk’s car left the point of origin after the blaze ignited, but he couldn’t explain what he was doing there, documents said.
Hinchcliff said Pashilk faces anywhere from 20 years a possible life sentence if convicted of all counts.
Accusations of “willfully, maliciously, deliberately, with premeditation, and with intent to cause injury to one or more persons or to cause damage to property” come with sentences that range from 10 years to life, and Pashilk faces two of those, according to Hinchcliff.
The California Department of Forestry originally arrested Pashilk on 17 counts of arson.
According to Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Pashilk was trained as an inmate firefighter from April to July 2007. He was serving a five-year sentence starting in 2002 after he had been convicted of several drug and firearms violations, records show.
Waters pointed out that many prisoners are trained to fight fires. In fact, as of this week, 1,734 California inmates are currently fighting wildfires throughout the state, including 340 of them who are battling the Clayton Fire, which Pashilk is accused of starting.
Hinchcliff said Wednesday that plenty of serial arsonists spark fires without any firefighting training. Officials “don’t have reason to believe that’s why he’s starting fires,” he said.
Pashilk, a San Francisco native who stated he was a construction worker on his arrest sheet, was paroled in July 2007. He was imprisoned six more times for violating his parole, but did not work as a firefighter again before he finally left parole in 2011, Waters said.
Arson investigators said Tuesday they had been building a case against Pashilk for more than a year but did not have enough evidence to make an arrest until the weekend blaze ripped through Lower Lake – the latest fire to besiege Lake County.
Officials get one shot of bringing alleged criminals, like Pashilk, to justice, and taking it “too soon” could “jeapordize” the investigation, Martin said.
While many residents hoped for awful things to happen to Pashilk, as the fire had ripped through their lives, others who know him, said they couldn’t believe he would do such a thing.
“He’s a great guy, a great neighbor,” Jon Charles Knowles told NBC News on Tuesday. “He saved my dog’s life once,” recounting how the 40-year-old San Francisco native broke up a fight between his pit bull and another dog.
And Louetta Mallard, originally of Los Gatos, said that Pashilk once helped “a single girl with a baby” move into a new home. “He did favors for people,” she said.
Mallard added: “I hope he’s innocent. I really do. I really don’t think he did it. He doesn’t seem like that type of guy.”
NBC News’ Jo Ling Kent and NBC Bay Area’s Lisa Fernandez and Rhea Mahbubani contributed to this report.