The months-long probe into an arson fire that scorched just under an acre of thick vegetation on a South Pasadena hillside last summer has resulted in a conviction that includes jail, residential drug treatment and three years of probation, according to officials.
Carlos Alberto Hernandez, 46, was sentenced last Wednesday, April 4, in Superior Court for the felony charge of reckless fire and was sentenced to 180 days in jail, three years of probation, six months to a year in a residential drug treatment program called L.A. Restoration Church and must register for life as an arson offender, according to Sarah Ardalani, spokesperson for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
Hernandez told investigators he was trying to cook food by setting the vegetation on fire and thought he’d extinguished the blaze before leaving the area, according to one of the lead arson investigators, San Marino Fire arson investigator Capt. Jason Sutliff, who’s been an arson investigator for 18 years. Sutliff is one of about 30 arson investigators that comprise the Verdugo Arson Task Force, which covers 13 fire departments throughout the San Gabriel Valley.
“We got lucky because one of the eyewitnesses had a cell phone picture of the suspect,” Sutliff said during a telephone interview last Friday. “We had the picture and a good understanding of what happened, but we didn’t have a name.” About two or three days later, Sutliff was informed that the suspect’s wife was involved in a domestic disturbance and identified Hernandez as the arsonist. Arson investigators located Hernandez only to have him flee and disappear. Six months later, Hernandez again was being detained by South Pasadena police on an unrelated charge. Sutliff was notified and this time Hernandez did not flee.
“We spoke to him for three hours and he confessed,” Sutliff said. Hernandez was arrested Feb. 2 on the felony charge of reckless fire. He’s remained behind bars ever since.
“I’m pleased with the sentencing,” Sutliff said. “It was a first-time offense and he kept saying he set fire to the vegetation to cook food and he extinguished the blaze before leaving. I think the sentence is fair.”
On Aug. 26, 2017, Hernandez started the fire on the South Pasadena hillside behind the Arroyo soccer and baseball fields along Arroyo Drive. Embers from the fire burned holes in outdoor furniture and awnings across the street on Arroyo Drive, and even threatened homes, arson investigators said.
It took nearly 1 1/2 hours for firefighters from multiple agencies, including South Pasadena, San Marino, Pasadena, Alhambra and the Los Angeles County Fire Department, to fully contain the blaze. Investigators determined that Hernandez lived in a nearby encampment. There were no reports of injury.
Hernandez walked away from the area and the fire had spread by the time he returned. Hernandez told investigators he then fled the scene.
South Pasadena Fire Chief Paul Riddle was grateful for the arrest and conviction, saying the blaze could’ve caused significantly more damage than it did.
“I can say that I am very proud of the collective efforts of all involved; from the first arriving units that kept the fire contained and prevented it from spreading to nearby structures, to the investigators from the Arson Task Force who ultimately made the arrest,” Riddle said in an email to the South Pasadena Review. “South Pasadena Police Detectives also assisted the arson investigators with the investigation. This case serves as a good reminder for our citizens to stay alert and if you see something say something. Witnesses to the fire were able to provide a description which was extremely important in this case.”