By Mark Gutglueck
Even with the unbearable heat beating down on San Bernardino County’s East Valley and the substantial vegetation growth that sprouted after this winter’s heavier-than-usual rains having turned to golden and darker brown tinder, the number of recurrent fires as the Dog Days of Summer approached were alarming. Because of the quick reaction of local fire agencies, most of those fires did not rage out of control for too long or leapfrog to other parched areas and create even more disastrous conflagrations. Nevertheless, seasoned arson investigators had reason to believe most or perhaps all of those fires were not accidental or the outgrowth of normal human activity or nature. Several bore the tell-tale signs of having been deliberately – either maliciously or psychotically – set.
A task force was formed which involved investigators from several local and regional fire and law enforcement agencies. A tool that was brought into the mix was the ALPR system, the Automatic License Plate Reader devices, growing numbers of which have been acquired over the last several years by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. The devices have been put in place at several discreet locations throughout the county, and over time, more and more of them have been added to the sheriff’s department’s arsenal, most recently in March, when the department purchased six of them, manufactured by Vigilant Solutions, LLC, for $155,682.
The devices are designed to make an electronic reading of license plate numbers as they pass by a certain location, and they both catalog the information and can provide an alert in the cases where the markings of specific vehicles have been programmed into the system’s digital processor.
Relatively early on, investigators noted similarities between what has now become known as the first Bryant fire which eventually burned 76 acres in the Yucaipa/Mentone area along Highway 38 west of Bryant Street which started at 3:40 p.m. on Friday, July 7 and a fire in Highland referred to as the Hidden Fire that started at approximately 3:26 p.m. on Wednesday, July 12 near the bottom of the Highway 330 near Boulder Avenue, south of the Walmart Supercenter on East Highland Avenue, which charred 43 acres before being brought under control, followed by another fire, the so-called Bridge Fire, which started at 2:22 p.m. on Friday, July 14, which consumed 460 acres in a relatively sparsely populated area of East Highland before it was doused.
The task force began retrieving and analyzing data from the ALPR systems available in the area. On Saturday July 22, the Seine Fire on chaparral covered property near Piedmont Drive and Seine Avenue broke out at around 3:45 p.m. It was contained at 26 acres.
At 11:23 a.m. on Friday July 28 the Trout fire in the foothills above Highland was reported. Quick action prevented it from spreading. Some three hours later, at 2:24 p.m., the Helen fire near Devore erupted but was again put down in rapid fashion.
Shortly thereafter, the task force had settled upon what investigators referred to as a “subject,” a 23-year-old construction worker named Jarrod Samra. Samra owned a white truck with license plates corresponding to those picked up by the automatic license plate readers on the roads leading to and leaving the scenes of several of the fires.
Investigators began an intensified inquiry with regard to Samra, using agency-to-agency privilege in approaching other governmental and public entities and educational institutions to formulate a profile on the young man. They tapped into social media sources and followed the various links to others who knew him, then discretely questioned those they thought might cooperate with their investigation without tipping Samra about their operation. One piece of information developed was that as an adolescent, Samra had been involved in the Fire Explorer program, which provides teenagers and those up to the age 20 the opportunity to train with actual firefighters to gain experience and expertise in fire science and determine if they are interested in pursuing a firefighting career. Samra had remained involved and participated steadily, but had aged out of the program at 21, and had not pursued any career leads beyond that, such as taking fire science courses in college or attending a fire academy.
By August 2, investigators began assembling data to demonstrate to a judge that there were grounds for the issuance of a search warrant and arrest warrant. A day later, it appears that Samra, unsuspecting that a dragnet was closing in on him, returned to a place near the scene of the fire he is now alleged to have set on July 7 in the Yucaipa/Mentone area, where he again set a fire. This led to his being caught essentially red-handed.
According to sheriff John McMahon, “As the result of multiple fires, over seven arson fires that occurred since June, law enforcement and fire personnel formed a task force. The goal was to exchange information and identify the suspect responsible for these fires. The involved agencies included Cal Fire[the the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection], the U.S. Forest Service, [the] San Bernardino County Fire [Department], the sheriff’s bomb-arson detail, detectives from the Highland, Central and Yucaipa stations from the sheriff’s department, along with detectives from the San Bernardino Police Department. Using investigative tools such as ALPR and others and gathering evidence led them to a common subject that was responsible for multiple fires by the name of Jarrod Samra. On Thursday August 3, detectives were preparing search warrants and an arrest warrant when the [second] Bryant Fire was started in Yucaipa. Once the Bryant Fire was started, deputies dispatched the information to responding deputies as to the description of the vehicle and the subject, Jarrod Samra. They saw Samra’s vehicle and immediately made contact with him and detained him near the Bryant fire. After serving several search warrants and interviewing Samra, he was arrested and the district attorney’s office has filed multiple charges of arson.”
McMahon acknowledged that Vigilant Solutions’ Automatic License Plate Reader System had played a key role in identifying Samra as a suspect.
“That system captures license plates, so once information was starting to come forward that he may be a person of interest, those data bases can be checked to see if that vehicle was present at any of the fires,” said McMahon. “That vehicle was picked up by the ALPR system at places that were close to the other fires.”
The task force was able to cross reference other available information and discern patterns that further locked the investigators onto Samra
“Those fires for the most part started near roadways, in multiple areas along the foothills, from San Bernardino to Highland over to Yucaipa,” said McMahon. “They were similar in where they were in relationship to the road, and similar to the time of day, and there was evidence found at each one of those scenes that was similar amongst all the fires.”
Samra, whose full name is Jarrod Anthony Samra, was taken into custody proximate to what is now being referred to as the Bryant 2 fire at Bryant Street and Highway 38. The fire was still growing and firefighters were rushing to the area to bring it under control. It grew to encompass 325 acres at one point. By Friday, the flames had been suppressed but hot spots continued to smolder three days later, on Monday when Samra was arraigned. He was charged with eight felony counts of arson, in addition to one count of arson causing great bodily injury. That injury was identified as a broken leg suffered by a firefighter in the course of fighting one of the fires Samra is charged with setting. He entered a not guilty plea to all of the charges.
District Attorney Mike Ramos credited the full dimensional effort of firefighters battling the fires with participating in the effort to prevent the fires Samra had initiated from raging out of control and destroying property and endangering lives. He credited investigators with preserving, gathering and analyzing evidence and acting proactively to bring Samra into custody.
“It’s not just one agency,” Ramos said. “It’s multiple agencies.”
County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig referenced “evidence collected and hard work done at these fire scenes.” He thanked McMahon for “dedicating resources” to the arson investigation and the effort to identify and capture Samra.
“San Bernardino County fire agencies take arson personally and find it unbelievable that anyone would intentionally inflict the kind of indiscriminate death and destruction caused by wildfire,” Hartwig said. “We know all too well in this county the heartbreaking loss of life and property caused by wildland fire. Any one of the fires that Mr. Samra is being accused of starting really had the potential of the conflagrations we’ve seen in this county. Many of us, if not all of us, can still visualize men and women, running for their lives from their vehicles on I-15, homes destroyed in the Blue Cut Fire, images of homes, houses, properties, livestock wiped out in fire in this county, the heartbreaking detail of families who have lost everything in this county. Fire agencies in this county are committed to working with law enforcement agencies to find any person or people responsible for arson within this county.”
Following his not guilty plea, Samra remained in jail in lieu of $2 million bail.
Ramos said, “The individual charged today has a maximum exposure to 19 years in state prison.” He said his office is determined to seek as harsh of a sentence as can be imposed so others inclined to engage in thrill arson will consider long and hard whether the satisfaction their activity provides them is worth what the community will assess from them if they are caught.
“Make no mistake: This district attorney’s office is going to hold them fully responsible,” Ramos said. “Thank God we didn’t have a loss of life.”
In the immediacy of Samra’s arrest and the prosecutorial action thereafter, there was sober celebration of the success of the operation. Nevertheless, that success came at a price, a spectacular and wide ranging .exposition of the sheriff’s department’s ALPR – automatic license plate reading – capability. With that comes the prospect that many with criminal intent or criminal designs will now be forewarned that their vehicular sojourns – at least past some important highway or roadway chokepoints throughout the county – are being monitored based upon their license plates.
By Mark Gutglueck