Police arrest suspect in Silicon Valley arsons

AP News
Posted: Jan 16, 2014 7:35 PM

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — In the heart of affluent Silicon Valley, a working-class, largely immigrant neighborhood breathed a collective sigh of relief after police arrested a suspected serial arsonist believed to have set at least a dozen fires within a week, sending fire trucks racing down the narrow, tree-lined streets day after day as smoke poured from churches, a warehouse and several homes.

"We've been keeping porch lights on, passing around the composite drawing, looking over our shoulders. So yeah, today I'm breathing a little easier," said Linda Dean, who runs sober-living homes and works with severely mentally ill men in the neighborhood.

San Jose police said Thursday they had charged William Patrick Brennan, 48, of San Jose with two counts of arson, with additional charges expected.

Police believe Brennan acted alone, Assistant Police Chief Eddie Garcia said.

"We are extremely certain that we have the individual responsible for all of the arsons that have occurred in the city," Garcia said.

Residents of the older neighborhood in central San Jose dotted with Vietnamese hair salons, a Mexican supermarket and the Portuguese Community Center said they hoped police were right.

"I'm grateful they caught him. But my first thought was, 'Does he have any partners?'" Dean said.

Kelly Lee, who works in an apartment complex a few blocks from several of the fires, said she has been nerve-wracked since the arsons began on Jan. 8.

"Everywhere I went, I was checking the neighborhood, seeing who was around, seeing if there were strangers," she said. The last fire was on Saturday, but she said it wasn't until she heard that Brennan has been arrested Thursday that she finally relaxed.

"I thought: wow, great, finally," she said.

The arrest came as much needed news to Sal Madrigal, an executive at a drywall business that was struck twice by arson in as many days last week.

Early Thursday, he said someone pushed a burning object through the building's mail slot, which caused other materials to catch fire. It was put out by an alert foreman who smelled smoke.

The next day, Madrigal said the building's exterior received minimal damage after someone apparently tried to pull a plywood panel off to the side and stuffed burning newspapers inside.

Employees started to stake out the business for a few nights. The business doubled its number of surveillance cameras outside from 4 to 8 and added metal paneling to make the exterior more fire resistant, Madrigal said.

He called off the stakeouts on Wednesday after police increased its presence and learned Thursday that an arrest was made.

"We feel a huge sense of relief," Madrigal said. "But we still have workers installing more cameras, even though police say the guy has been caught.

"You can never be too careful, so we're going to take the necessary precautions."

Surveillance footage, including a recording that showed a man matching the suspect's description starting a fire on the porch of a home, proved critical in cracking the dangerous case, Garcia said. He credited a dogged patrol sergeant who, while scanning criminal databases, spotted Brennan as a registered arsonist living near the recurring blazes.

Stakeouts began Sunday and once police had enough evidence, they got a search warrant for his home and retrieved items police say linked him to the fires. It was unclear Thursday if Brennan had an attorney, and police said they found no motive.

Brennan is being held in the Santa Clara County Jail on $1 million bail. He has a previous criminal record for arson in California as well as out of state, Garcia said. Brennan is also listed as a registered sex offender on California's Megan's Law website.

No one was injured in last week's fires that put San Jose — the San Francisco Bay Area's largest city with more than 1 million residents — on edge.

But one blaze destroyed the home of a couple in their 60s, who were rescued by neighbors. More than 100 firefighters battled a massive blaze at a large vacant warehouse near U.S. Highway 101 last Thursday that delayed the morning commute and closed two nearby schools for the day.

Earlier this week, authorities released a sketch of a person of interest in the case, and the San Jose firefighters union put up a $10,000 reward for information leading to the suspect's arrest and conviction.

Some residents began patrolling the area themselves to prevent another attack. Both police and fire officials also credit the community's help with the investigation.

"We're thrilled that the effort we put forth to stop what he was doing is finally coming to an end," San Jose Fire Division Chief Barry Stallard said.


Collins reported from San Francisco.