A suspected serial arsonist was charged on Wednesday with 17 counts of arson and suspected arson, and fainted before he was arraigned in front of a courtroom filled with angry Northern California residents affected by the largest fire he allegedly set.
A two-page probable cause statement alleges Damon Anthony Pashilk, 40, of Clearlake, Calif. was behind a string of mostly small vegetation fires between July 2, 2015 and Aug. 13, 2016 - the date of the 4,000-acre Clayton Fire - and that his car was captured on video surveillance cameras at many of the arson sites. In one case, a witness saw the driver throw an object out the window where flames then erupted. In other cases, Cal Fire investigators watching him and GPS trackers attached to his car linked his vehicle to the fire sites near rural highways both to the north and south of Clear Lake, which gives the city Clearlake its name, documents state.
"He set a fire that caused mass destruction in this county," Lake County Deputy District Attorney Richard Hinchcliff told NBC Bay Area.
"We are very confident this is our guy, a serial arsonist," added Cal Fire's Scott McLean, adding, "The year-long investigation will prove that."
Investigators Link Clayton Fire Arson Suspect to Ignition Sites
In an interview with him Monday, investigators said that Pashilk "could not provide an explanation to being at the ignition site of the fires." Pashilk was arrested earlier that day during a traffic stop.
In addition, Pashilk was charged with possession of methamphetamine and driving with a suspended license.
Cal Fire crews by Wednesday had contained 50 percent of the Clayton Fire, which has destroyed 268 structures, including 175 homes. Officials on Wednesday lifted some evacuation orders in portions of Lower Lake in Lake County.
Prosecutors and Cal Fire investigators did not lay out a possible motive behind the fires, something Pashilk was trained to battle when he was an inmate firefighter serving a five-year sentence starting in 2002 after he had been convicted of several drug and firearms violations. But authorities added that it didn't appear Pashilk was targeting anyone, and that he acted alone.
Just before the San Francisco-born construction worker appeared in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Andrew Blum to face charges wearing a green-and-white jail suit, Pashilk was reported to have passed out before the 1:15 p.m. arraignment. Officials did not have details about him fainting, but those in the court room heard a loud thud before he entered the room.
After keeping his face hidden, Pashilk did not enter a plea and tried to bolt out of the courtroom once the proceedings ended. Pashilk is expected to return to court on Sept. 7. Pashilk faces anywhere from 20 years a possible life sentence if convicted of all counts.
Clayton Fire Arson Suspect Faces Arraignment
Blum appointed a public defender for Pashilk, who 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.
Aware that emotions are running high in Lake County, Pashilk's current attorney David Markham said, "I would just remind them he's presumed innocent until proven guilty."
Markham declined to comment on the suspect's demeanor or state of mind or provide details about the case itself.
For many residents, knowing that a man who lives in Clearlake may be responsible for so much heartache is maddening. And the anger was palpable inside and outside of the courtroom.
"It kinda makes you angry," said Mishta Russell of Lower Lake. "Hopefully he gets what he deserves, and he can't do this again."
For her part, Lake County resident Deanna Marie said she was filled with "disgust" when Pashilk hid his face from news cameras Wednesday.
Clayton Fire Arson Suspect Served as Inmate Firefighter
"You've done all this to people -- thousands of people, you've turned their lives upside down," she said. "Face the people."
NBC Bay Area's Rhea Mahbubani contributed to this report.