No Apparent Link in Cases of Homeless Men Awaking to Flames


Arcata police are still trying to figure out who set the Sept. 16 fire at the Arcata Presbyterian Church and why. - THADEUS GREENSON
  • Thadeus Greenson
  • Arcata police are still trying to figure out who set the Sept. 16 fire at the Arcata Presbyterian Church and why.
The recent incidents set exactly one week apart in Arcata and Eureka appeared remarkably similar at first: Homeless men sleeping on the steps of a building waking up to flames. One was severely injured while the other managed to get out of his sleeping bag before getting burned.

Police department officials in the two cities say they immediately began investigating whether the cases were linked but evidence is showing key differences between the two. Most importantly, there was no sign of an accelerant or a broken container for a Molotov cocktail in the Sept. 23 fire at the Job Market building in Eureka near the jail, where the man escaped injury.

“I don't know if we will ever be able to conclusively 100 percent say it wasn't arson or targeted but the detective is leaning toward no at this time,” Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson said in an email to the Journal on Friday. “He did find and re-interview the man, who confirmed he didn't actually see what happened.”

Meanwhile, the 28-year-old Ohio man who was badly burned while sleeping on the steps of a historic Arcata church remains hospitalized.

He is still too heavily medicated to be interviewed after suffering severe burns to his head and hands Sept. 16, when a flammable liquid was ignited and thrown near him by an unknown assailant, according to Arcata Police Department Detective Sgt. Todd Dokweiler.

Good Samaritans who were passing by helped douse the flames.

The hope is the man, who had been in the area for about a month, might be able to provide a new avenue of investigation, including whether he had recently been in a dispute with someone or if the perpetrator said anything to him before the attack.

“That’s the thing we really want to be able to determine,” Dokweiler said. “The witness did not give any statement that indicted the suspect was making a threat to the individual.”

The boarded up front porch of the Arcata Presbyterian Church on 11th and G streets. - THADEUS GREENSON
  • Thadeus Greenson
  • The boarded up front porch of the Arcata Presbyterian Church on 11th and G streets.
Noting that the porch of the historic Arcata Presbyterian Church on 11th and G streets is open to the sidewalk and generally well lit, Dokweiler said it’s “unlikely that whoever the person was who threw the liquid did not know the guy was up there.”

So far, there has been nothing to suggest that the 1917 building was the intended target, he adds. While there was evidence of an attempted break-in at the church, Dokweiler said that appears to be unrelated.

“Where we are at right now is our hope is to get a good statement from the victim,” Dokweiler said, adding it’s possible other witnesses or people who have information might still come forward. “Oftentimes, someone sees something … and as time goes on, we’ll get that tip. In this case, we did have good eyewitness that was helpful.”

Dokweiler said the initial police report contained inaccurate information on the suspect possibly being Hispanic. The witness described seeing a white male adult with short, dark brown hair who was about 5 feet 10 inches, weighing 150 pounds and wearing dark pants and a long-sleeved gray shirt.

He said that when a crime like this is “directed at a business or church or something specific, normally a person wants to make it known that was their intent and that hasn’t been case here, which makes it more of a question mark.”

The detective sergeant said APD and EPD investigators meet weekly, but he reached out as soon as he heard about the Eureka incident. Dokweiler had hoped there might have been video evidence but in both cases the cameras around the scenes were either not working or pointed in the wrong direction.

Dokweiler said homeless people are in general vulnerable to becoming victims of crime, but the department has not received reports of similar incidents.

“Nothing that we can say is definitely related or even seems to be related to this and we haven’t had more suspicious fires either,” he said.

The National Coalition for the Homeless, which tracks incidents of violence against homeless individuals, recorded 1,650 cases in the United States between 1999 and 2015, according to the most recent numbers available. Of those, 334 crimes that the report states are “believed to have been motivated by the perpetrators‘ biases against people experiencing homelessness or by their ability to target homeless people with relative ease” took place in California.

While the motive in the Arcata case remains “an unknown,” according to Dokweiler, investigators in Eureka are learning toward the likelihood that the Sept. 23 fire was accidental, perhaps caused by a dropped cigarette.

“Obviously if there were to be someone targeting the homeless with violence like this it would be unacceptable and a top priority for us,” Watson said.

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