Ex-professor from San Jose pleads guilty to setting three wildfires during Dixie’s early days

Ex-professor from San Jose pleads guilty to setting three wildfires during Dixie’s early days

A former college professor from San Jose pleaded guilty to setting three wildfires in the early days of the Dixie Fire in summer 2021.

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Gary Stephen Maynard, 49, faces up to 20 years in a prison and a $250,000 fine for each of the three counts of arson on federal property, the U.S. Justice Department said in a press release following the plea Thursday in Sacramento. His sentencing is set for May 9.

He was charged with setting four fires — Cascade, Everitt, Ranch and Conard — and under the plea agreement admitted to three counts.

From September 2019 to December 2020, Maynard was an adjunct faculty member in the sociology department of Santa Clara University. He also had taught at Sonoma State University.

On Aug. 7, 2021, he was arrested in an area that had been closed to the public because of the Dixie Fire. In the five days prior to the arrest, investigators had tracked Maynard using a device placed on his car, recording his movements in forestland between Redding and Susanville. Three wildfires, believed to be deliberately set, were found along his route.

Maynard had first come under suspicion on July 20, in the aftermath of a small fire discovered by mountain bikers on the southern flank of Mount Shasta. A Forest Service fire investigator came across Maynard trying to free his high-centered Kia Soul on a forest road and attempted to question him about the fire but found him agitated and uncooperative.

When tire tracks matching the Kia’s were found near a second fire the next day on Mount Shasta, a warrant was obtained to track Maynard’s phone position. That led investigators to the Kia, found Aug. 3 outside a Susanville grocery store. A tracking device was placed on it, yielding the information that linked Maynard to three other wildfires.

This map shows the location of the fires and Maynard’s locations as cited in the arrest affidavit.

The investigation turned up information that one of Maynard’s colleagues at Santa Clara University had contacted the police with concerns about his well-being in October 2020.

“This concerned citizen told officers that Maynard had told her he was suffering from anxiety, depression, split personality, and that he wanted to kill himself,” according to the affidavit. The colleague said Maynard had moved from his San Jose home and was possibly living out of his car.

The fires he was accused of setting, though extinguished in their early stages, were called potentially dangerous to crews fighting the Dixie Fire. “Maynard’s fires were placed in the perfect position to increase the risk of firefighters being trapped between fires,” a prosecutor wrote in arguing against bail for the suspect.

Dixie, which started on July 13, 2021, went on to burn 963,309 acres in five counties over the next 3½ months. It is the largest single wildfire in California history.