Suspect in Monday fires has history of arson, may have set others here

A Palm Springs Police Department officer stands watch at the scene of a suspected arson fire at North Belardo Road and Merito Place on June 12. The fire was one of dozens reported in the city this year that are believed to have been intentionally set.

A woman arrested on suspicion of setting two fires in the city on Monday has a history of arson and may be responsible for other suspicious fires reported in the city this year.

The woman, 52, has yet to be charged. She was booked into the Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside Monday evening and faces five different charges related to the fires, as well as a charge of being under the influence of a controlled substance. She is being held without bail, pending an initial court appearance Wednesday in Indio.

Writing on social media, those who knew her said the woman was part of the Palm Springs homeless population. She was arrested Monday at the scene of the second incident shortly after a witness reported seeing her intentionally start a brush fire in the 300 block of Calle Abronia at approximately 11:30 AM. That fire spread to a nearby unoccupied residence. She is also suspected of setting an earlier fire at the back of a business in the 300 block of South Palm Canyon Drive. That fire occurred at 5 AM and was contained to debris behind the business.

According to Palm Springs Police Department Lt. William Hutchinson, the woman is not a suspect in a fire last week at a South Palm Springs RV park. He said that fire, which started in a motor home, is not believed to be arson. Although a body was found during efforts to extinguish the RV park blaze, police have yet to say whether the person whose body was discovered died due to the fire.

Riverside County court records show the woman suspected of Monday’s fires in Palm Springs has convictions for felonies dating back to 1996, primarily in Indio. The records include convictions for driving with a revoked license, disobeying court orders, and probation violations.

A March 2018 case, however, will likely be of most interest to police, firefighters, city residents, and downtown business owners struggling to identify who is responsible for dozens of suspicious fires set in the city this year. In the 2018 case, the woman was convicted of attempted arson and vandalism in Indio. She was ordered to pay restitution to the victims and spend time in a mental health center.

Hutchinson said the woman’s suspected behavior in Palm Springs and her history in Indio fits a pattern of escalating dangerous behavior most associated with a person who starts fires due to mental anguish.

“There’s a lot of different reasons somebody would choose to light a fire,” Hutchinson explained during a phone call as he walked through a half-dozen psychological profiles of suspected arsonists.

“Is somebody burning something because they are trying to hide a crime? Maybe they are angry at somebody,” he said. “Maybe it’s something psychologically driven, or maybe it’s exciting for them. Or it could be there is more malicious intent. It could just be a cry for help.”

In this case, given the suspect’s past behavior and apparent struggles with mental health issues and homelessness — alluded to on social media by those who knew her — Hutchinson said the suspect could be acting out as she tries to cope with trauma.

“The pattern is a little concerning,” Hutchinson said. “She did it once before, and it appears as if she’s done it again.”

Editor’s note: The Post’s editorial policy is not to name suspects in any case until they have been charged, unless the identity of the suspect is newsworthy itself.


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