The scene at 9:15 a.m. Monday at 357 Grindelwald, the location of one of two arson-related fires Monday, consisted of numerous Mammoth Police and Fire vehicles on an otherwise deserted street. The vehicles were parked in front of a home with visible burn marks on its front; a man sat in the bed of a pickup truck, answering questions posed to him by Sergeant Joseph Vetter. A hastily erected line of cones marked off the edges of the crime scene and soon another truck deposited another line of cones about fifteen yards in front of the initial line, accompanied by a “Road Closed” sign.
That same afternoon, less than a mile away at the Val D’Isere condominium complex, a similar array of vehicles were parked in front of the building housing unit four. Police officers could be seen conferring on the pathway outside the unit.
Mammoth Lakes Police believe that the fires, which were ignited early Monday morning at these two locations, share a common perpetrator, and at 3 p.m. Monday, MLPD published a short statement omn its Facebook page which announced that 30-year old suspect, Patrick Zepeda, was in custody.
The charges read as follows: two counts of arson, one count of attempted murder, and one count of burglary.
The post featured an image depicting the home at 357 Grindelwald, where the suspect lived with his girlfriend, still emitting smoke and surrounded by firefighters, with a scorch mark extending from the roof of the home to just above a window on the first floor.
Ed Cesnalis, who rented the other unit in the duplex, commented on his Facebook page that Zepeda is “a good kid, took the wrong drug”.
Another update from the police department came an hour later, updating the charges against Zepeda to three counts of attempted murder, based upon three people being inside the Val d’Isere unit at the time the fires were set. This update was accompanied by a video, which showed smoke pouring out of windows and large flames emerging from others. Fiery debris sporadically drops from the building onto a porch, where it continues to burn fiercely.
The Mono County District Attorney’s office released an official statement on Wednesday afternoon that established the timeline of events. At 4:43 am, the fire department responded to the fire at Val D’Isere and about forty-five minutes later, another 911 call came through that was related to the fire on Grindelwald.
A closer examination of the Val D’Isere scene revealed little, if any, exterior damage but damage to a wall in entryway was visible through a full length window. The three small fires set inside the condominium were extinguished before the fire department arrived. The condo at Val D’Isere is owned by Garrett and Cary James with a mailing address in Laguna Niguel.
District Attorney Tim Kendall’s official statement indicated that the condo residents were friends of the suspect.
The extent of the damage at 357 Grindelwald was greater, with blackened portions of the roof and windows visible from the street. When fire fighters arrived on scene, the house was “fully engulfed in flames”, according to the DA’s press release. “Half the unit was on fire with flames coming out and impinging on the the unit next door”, said Natalie Morrow, dispatch chief at Mammoth Lakes Fire Protection District. According to MLFD’s press release, “Mammoth Lakes Fire crews were able to start an offensive attack and protect exposures near the home”.
The Sheet reached property owner Dan Molnar on Wednesday. Molnar, in a twist of irony, is working this week out at Burning Man.
But if you’re looking for a fistful of righteous indignation, or for a wronged guy to tell you how wronged he was, you’re looking in the wrong direction.
“Pat was a good guy and good tenant,” said Molnar, who confirmed the Mr. Zepeda lived in one of his duplex units with his girlfriend. “He frequently conveyed his gratitude [at having a place to live]. He didn’t have a beef with us … but he had issues. He was sick. And he snapped.”
“I cried for Pat [upon learning what had happened]. Not for the house. We can rebuild the house. I’m devastated for him and his family. He could be my kid one day. He could be your kid one day. He needs help, not prison.”
The timeline of events made it possible for the fire department to extinguish the fire on Grindelwald before it burned out of control. “Luckily, we were staffed at the time”, says Morrow. The close proximity of the two fires meant that the firefighters were already nearby when the second call came in.
Zepeda was arrested without incident on the scene at Grindelwald and was arraigned on two counts of arson of an inhabited dwelling and three counts of arson of personal property on Wednesday, August 28.
Zepeda’s attorney declared a doubt as to his competence to stand trial; the judge has suspended criminal proceedings and tasked two psychologists with evaluating Zepeda’s mental competence. He’s currently in Mono County Jail on $250,000 bail. A status conference is scheduled for September 17 in Bridgeport.