Arson Suspect Arraigned on Charges of Setting Nine Fires - KMSP-TV

Arson Suspect Arraigned on Charges of Setting Nine Fires In Riverside Co.

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(FOX 11/CNS) - A Banning man was arraigned today on arson charges in a newly unsealed grand jury indictment accusing him of setting nine fires that burned a total of 670 acres in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Steven Taylor Rutherford, who pleaded not guilty to 13 felony arson counts, is accused of starting the "Mills Fire" in San Bernardino County and eight blazes in Riverside County.

Rutherford, 48, was arrested last June following a months-long investigation by Cal Fire. He has a conviction for arson from 1989, for which he was sentenced to a year in jail and three years probation.

He could face 80 years in prison if convicted of the charges, which include sentence-enhancing allegations of use of a delayed ignition device and having a prior arson conviction, according to the Riverside County District Attorney's Office.

Rutherford is due back in court March 11 for a trial-readiness conference. At a news conference last July, Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach alleged Rutherford was "a serial arsonist who poses a dangerous risk to the citizens of Southern California."

The "Mills Fire," which began last June 28 near Mills Creek and Newport roads on the outskirts of Mentone, scorched 534 acres and damaged four properties, including two homes.

Rutherford is also accused of setting:

-- the five-acre "Twin Fire," Highway 243 at Twin Pines Road, on Sept. 6, 2011;

-- the 55-acre "Banning Fire," Highway 243 north of Mt. Edna Road, on Sept. 7, 2011;

-- the "Summit Fire," which burned about two acres in the vicinity of Highway 74 at mile marker 55, and the 35-acre "Lambs Fire," Gilman Springs Road east of Sanderson Avenue, both on Sept. 11, 2011;

 -- the 20-acre "Water Fire," Whitewater Canyon north of Interstate 15, and the 10-acre "Free Fire," Mt. Edna Road west of Highway 243, both on Oct. 22, 2011;

-- the "Edna Fire," Highway 243 south of Wesley Street, which blackened about four acres on Sept. 9, 2012;

 -- on June 28, 2013, the five-acre "Smith Fire," Highway 243 south of Banning near mile post 28.

According to Zellerbach, there were two injuries associated with the alleged acts of arson -- a member of an inmate hand crew who suffered minor burns and a firefighter who collapsed from heat exhaustion.

Rutherford allegedly used a "delayed ignition device" to set the fires, according to Zellerbach, who declined to elaborate on the type of device that was used.

However, in drawing parallels to Rutherford's alleged acts, Zellerbach mentioned the Esperanza wildfire, a 41,000-acre blaze ignited in 2006 by Beaumont mechanic Raymond Lee Oyler, who now sits on California's death row for killing five U.S. Forest Service firefighters caught in a tidal flame while trying to defend a home near Twin Pines.

Oyler's preferred device was a cigarette strapped to woodstick matches.Zellerbach said law enforcement surveillance, security videotape captured outside businesses and GPS devices eventually placed on the defendant's vehicles helped build the case against Rutherford, who is being held at the Southwest Detention Center in Murrieta in lieu of $5 million bail.

The grand jury proceedings against Rutherford were held over four days earlier this month, during which 28 witnesses testified, according to the D.A.'s office.

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