Calexico firefighters head into a large warehouse on West Fifth Street in Calexico late Saturday night, Oct. 2, before there knew it was just a lighting fire from the homeless that gave off too much smoke. Most fires are being approached with caution and a heightened awareness as a suspected arsonist or arsonists ignite fires on the west side of the city. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO
CALEXICO — When yet another suspicious fire was reported on the west side of Calexico on Saturday night, Oct. 2, in an area frequented by the homeless, authorities were quick to assume it was one a growing list of suspected arsons stoking concerns of a serial fire-starter.
However, once fire investigators had a chance to speak with a homeless woman taken into custody by police that night for questioning, it was determined that Saturday’s incident was not related to what public safety officials said have been at least six intentionally lighted blazes —and now possibly more — mostly in bunches on the west side around near Cesar Chavez Boulevard, since Sept. 14.
At this point, though, every fire reported with even a whiff of similarities is raising hackles among the city’s public safety officials.
“Every fire that we have, especially in that area, we’re going to look to see what is it in its nature, is it something that’s kind of a nuisance fire? Or is this something that we’re gonna have to categorize differently?” Calexico fire Capt. Eduardo “Lalo” Rivera said on Sunday, Oct. 3.
“During the investigation, we’re gonna have to determine that. And right now, in that area, any fire that happens we’re going to be approaching it like this: can we eliminate arson, and if we’re able to eliminate arson, then we will find whatever the other cause would be,” he said.
Rivera and another fire investigator, both of whom responded to the Saturday night blaze in a vacant manufacturing facility in the 400 block of West Fifth Street, sat in on the questioning of a female transient.
It stands to reason why the homeless community is being tied to this recent spate of suspected arsons, and it’s not because of the typical warming, cooking, or illuminating fires that have been a common occurrence in Calexico for the past several years; rather, it’s something more insidious, Calexico Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo on Sunday.
While city officials gave a glimpse into what is happening during the Calexico City Council meeting on Wednesday night, Oct. 6, Gerardo explained the roots of what he thinks is happening during a more in-depth conversation on Sunday afternoon.
After city officials started the process of clearing off homeless encampments on the vacant lot immediately south of the Calexico Indoor Swap Meet at Grant Street and Cesar Chavez Boulevard in mid-July and August, police and fire have been dealing with a steady rise and clustering of fires meant to cause damage to property and possibly do harm.
“We’re not blaming it on all the homeless people; it might just be one or two or three that are the ones that are causing this problem, because they get kicked out from groups. These are the troublemakers,” Gerardo said.
“We’re gonna end up reaching out to Brown Bag (Coalition) and the other (groups that serve the homeless). I’m going to ask them to ask their homeless people who’s doing this, because they’re going to be the ones that are going to be getting the heat,” the chief said Oct. 3.
Gerardo and Rivera each said more information would be shared this week, although the information relayed at the City Council meeting did not greatly add to what is already known.
As of Tuesday, Oct. 5, Gerardo had not spoken with Brown Bag Coalition co-founder Maribel Padilla, but Gerardo said his officers have already spoken to pockets of the homeless population, he said Wednesday night.
On Tuesday, Padilla said she had no idea the situation was so dire, but she also said it’s long been the homeless who take the blame for the high numbers of suspected arsons reported in the city. Each of the last two years, 2019 and 2020, Calexico police have reported about 60 suspected arsons to the FBI’s crime stats office.
Still, she said the chief has been fair and helpful, and when he calls, she will help.
“Everybody paints them with a broad brush … Even they get mad, because they get assaulted, and they steal their stuff, and it’s all these young kids, these ‘mogrosos,’ druggies,” she said.
Although she believes the chief will reach out before then, Padilla said she will have many of the homeless in the city in one place on Oct. 16 for a funeral service for a homeless man named Peter. She will ask around then if it’s not too late.
What We Know So Far
Calexico’s homeless population is fairly large — Padilla estimates it around 60 and growing now that the extreme temperatures seem to have broken.
They are often centered around the west side of town, the area where nearly all the suspicious fires have been concentrated, with the exception of a suspected arson at 935 Rockwood Ave. in the predawn hours on Friday, Oct. 1.
It’s not clear how many fires are connected to this rash overall, but it believed there were at least two additional suspected arsons following Saturday’s false alarm, and both were repeat fires at previous locations — one on Sunday night, Oct. 3, and one after midnight on Monday morning, Oct. 4.
Neither suspected arson was mentioned by fire officials but appeared as part of the Calexico Police Department’s call logs. Information about the fire reported at 1:44 a.m. Oct. 4 was limited, but points to 123 McKinley St., the same location as an attempted arson on early Saturday morning that was put out by neighbors in the area.
Logs state only that no suspects were developed, and a report was taken.
The Sunday night fire, however, got a more thorough description and that case was also a return trip, this time to the 200 block of Lincoln Street to the same trailer park visited on Sept. 14 and apparently again on Sept. 30.
Reported at 10:24 p.m. Oct. 3 at 215 Lincoln St., the officer identified only as the “night shift supervisor” writes:
“I was driving (westbound) in the 200 block of Lincoln Street when I saw a light plume of white smoke coming from the trailer park located at 215 Lincoln Street. As I drove farther west, I could see an orange glow reflecting off the east wall of a warehouse located at 229 Lincoln Street. Knowing there have been a series of arsons in the area, I immediately drove to the north driveway of 215 Lincoln Street to gain access to where the fire was located, which was determined to be at the rear of Space 22. I also requested Calexico Fire respond along with additional patrol personnel to assist in searching for a suspect.
“As I made my way towards the rear of Space 22, I could see several wooden 2x4s had been set on fire. This was the same location where the actual residence had been set on fire on 09-30-21 under CPD case No. C21-13740,” the narrative continues.
“While checking the immediate area, I could see what appeared to be fresh shoe prints in the semi-hard packed dirt located at the rear of Space 22. The tread pattern of the sole appeared to be made from a work-style boot. … Residents of the trailer park were contacted, and no one saw or heard anything preceding the fire,” according to the logs.
No other information was immediately available on those cases, which if confirmed by fire officials, would be Nos. seven and eight.
What appeared to be a fire on Saturday night had all the initial trappings of another suspected arson fire. It was on the west side and was at a location known for being a “secret” crash pad for numerous homeless individuals in the city, the place Chief Gerardo believes many headed to after being kicked off the three privately owned sections of land on Cesar Chavez Boulevard located between the old Garcia Foods building and Legion Park, one of the city’s youth ballfields.
Around 10:35 p.m., reports of smoke in the area of 416 W. Fifth St. on the west side of Cesar Chavez came in, emanating from a large warehouse with a sign over the door advertising it as GMP Calexico.
From the scanner traffic that night, it appeared fire crews had some initial trouble locating a fire through the smoke, and separate crews entered through two different parts of the building.
Rivera said the building was thick with smoke and crews encountered just a ton of shopping carts and sectioned off living quarters but no fire. It turns out it was never a full-blown fire, but what Rivera thinks was a fire meant to provide light, and as it dimmed, a woman kept feeding it with paper and trash, to the point where it just gave off mass amounts of smoke.
Gerardo said the warehouse-like building was, ironically, a former Bianchi International manufacturing operation. The Temecula-based company produces holsters and tactical gear for police officers, and now the building is used as a multi-level crash pad for the city’s homeless.
“From my understanding, the owner doesn’t care. He lets them be there,” Gerardo said.
At least one of the women police and fire investigators spoke with had her own set of keys for a padlock securing the building, Gerardo and Rivera said separately.
The police chief described a loft and various living areas, and he suspected maybe a dozen of the city’s homeless to be living there.
Photos taken of the Fire Department’s entry into a door of the warehouse, which is recessed into ground, show a hint of the living arrangements inside.
During the department reports section of Wednesday night’s meeting, Gerardo, Calexico Fire Chief Diego Favila, and City Manager Miguel Figueroa all communicated some of what is being done to put a stop the arson fires.
“We are working together with other agencies in the Valley. … And we’re trying to find out who is causing these fires. It might be one person, it might be two people, but you know it’s very … we know they might be in the area because every time they were there, after they set a fire, they disappear pretty quick,” Gerardo said.
“So, it’s got to be somebody that lives around the area or hides very well. We are on to them, and I hope that they will not take it as a challenge, but we will get them, working with the Fire Department, working with other businesses, to see if they can help us, because there’s a lot of cameras out there,” he said, adding any tips can be made to police and fire anonymously.
Because many of the fires have occurred at the city’s high number of vacant buildings, Figueroa said he has advised code enforcement officers to step up efforts to prevent a build-up of materials at sites that might be used to ignite the fires. “I also want to make sure that that we are clear that we’re being more stringent on the code enforcement side,” he said.
Favila stressed that “community involvement” will go a long way toward solving these crimes.
“If you’re driving by and you see somebody suspicious, you know, you’ve heard of something suspicious, please call either the Fire Department or the Police Department, because this is how we’ve caught previous arsonists,” Favila said, adding one area resident offered fire investigators the footage from their Ring doorbell camera.
“We’re close. We’re very close, and that’s the part that I want to mention is it make sure that we get the community involved,” he added.
A council member asked Gerardo about the type of homeless persons thought to be committing the arsons, and he reiterated what he told this newspaper on Sunday.
“The homeless people are actually very upset because you know we’re going up to them and asking these questions, and they don’t want to be blamed for something like this,” Gerardo said. “Homeless people are not bad people, and so they’re actually going to help us. … I offered a reward out of my pocket that if they gave me the person, that I would pay them.”