Caldor Fire Witnesses Speak Out for the First Time: Part Three – Billy’s Story

Part One of this story introduced us to Travis Alvarez, who shared his story of meeting the Smiths moments after the Caldor Fire began. In Part Two we met Travis’ girlfriend, Amanda Serum, who recounted her run in with an old friend named Andy who told her his father, Billy Freeman, started the fire. Her story was disturbingly specific and appears, at least in part, to have been corroborated by several people close to the Freemans.

William “Billy” Freeman is an El Dorado County native. Friends and family describe him as kind, gentle, and quiet. They also paint a picture of a man suffering from debilitating drug addiction. While still possessing a good heart, they say, drugs have slowly caused Billy to lose nearly everything. He is estranged from much of his family and his mental and physical health have declined, according to several close friends.

For several years, Billy has been living between a makeshift cabin near a Happy Valley ranch and a tent he keeps next to the Middle Fork of the Cosumnes River. To make ends meet, he does odd jobs for area ranch owners and pans for gold in the Cosumnes. I’m told he occasionally stays the night in a friend’s home in the Omo Ranch area when he is particularly hungry or the weather is bad.

I am told Billy doesn’t have the ability to charge his cell phone consistently and, even when does, the coverage in his area is spotty. It took weeks of texts, phone calls, and local contacts physically travelling to his camp before I was able to connect with Billy. Our first interaction took place through Facebook Messenger.

I asked Billy if he could broadly share his experience in the first days of the Caldor Fire. He remembers being aware of a fire to the east, but not realizing how serious the situation was until the night “the sky was glowing red over Grizzly Flats.” The following day, Billy decided to stay and help protect the ranch despite being ordered to evacuate. He recalls working alongside CalFire ground crews as flames came within 200 feet of his cabin.

I told Billy his story was interesting and asked if we could continue the interview by phone. He agreed, and said he would have a better signal in just a few hours when he would be in Pleasant Valley to run errands. We set up the phone call 2:00 p.m. that day. Billy then continued to message me about his experience as the fire reached the Happy Valley area the week after the fire began.

I again asked if he could also tell me about his experience the first days of the fire, August 14th and 15th, as it grew out of the Middle Fork and Dogtown Creek convergence. At this point, Billy stopped responding and I assumed he was on his way to Pleasant Valley. But 2:00 p.m. came and went. Billy didn’t answer my calls or texts that day, or any of the following days. Eventually I chose the aggressive route and left messages for Billy stating that his family has accused him of starting the Caldor Fire and I’d like to offer him the chance to respond before I publish the story. He didn’t reply.

It was time to move on. The story was turning into several articles and I needed to start writing. I published the first part of the story and then interviewed Andy Freeman. A week later I published Andy and Amanda’s story, detailing the accusations against Billy which Amanda had shared with USFS investigators. My phone was ringing the next morning.

It was Billy.

“I read your stories. I am just shocked. I had nothing to do with this fire. I’m not gonna stoop to my son’s level. He’s just a story teller. Always has been,” Billy said. Despite his shock, he was polite and patient throughout our interview. He made clear he was frustrated by the accusations but his demeanor was consistently calm and relaxed.

After assuring him I would accurately share his side of the story, I asked Billy if there were any truthful pieces of Andy’s account which may have have been misconstrued or exaggerated. “Just one,” he said.

A year before the fire, Billy was cited for at least eight illegal campfire pits in the area he pans for gold south of Happy Valley. According to Billy, though, he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. He said he happened to be there picking up trash when he ran into a USFS official. “I guess because I was near a bunch of fire pits they cited me. They weren’t mine. They weren’t even burning,” Billy told me.

He went on to say the fines for the citations totaled $1,800, but he never paid. “That was a year ago. I never heard anything about it. Never got a court date. I guess I wasn’t charged, so I just didn’t pay,” he said. Billy believes it may have been these citations which led Andy to tell others that Billy has a “history” of illegal campfires. Other than this, he claims, there is no truth to anything else Andy told Amanda and others, myself included.

I asked Billy why his friends would have contacted his family to report him missing if he wasn’t missing at all. “I have no idea. I wasn’t missing. I was up here fighting the fire the whole time,” he said. He told me that bulldozers, which were cutting fire lines in the area, had knocked over a telephone pole which removed power and internet access for him and others in the area. Because of this, he said, his family “probably thought I was missing because I couldn’t message or call anyone for awhile.”

I reminded Billy that flames hadn’t tore through Grizzly flats until August 17th, and fire lines weren’t cut in the Happy Valley area until much later. So, why did his friends call his family on August 17th to say they hadn’t seen him “in days?” Where was he between August 14th and 16th?

Billy then told me that on August 14th, he was with a friend’s son camping along the Middle Fork approximately 5-7 miles west of the where the Caldor Fire began. “I was nowhere near there. I haven’t been down to Dogtown Creek or anywhere around there in three years,” he told me.

I asked Billy for the names of the friend and the friend’s son. He was hesitant. I explained that if these friends could verify that he was nowhere near the start of the fire on August 14th I would publish it as quickly as possible. He eventually shared one of the friends’ names and told me he would have them call me after we hung up.

I never received a phone call from Billy’s friends. I reached out to them but they did not respond. In the days following our interview I called and texted Billy, urging him to set up a phone call so I could verify his location on the 14th. He didn’t reply.

In our interview, Billy also told me he doesn’t own a quad and he doesn’t know why so many people told me he did. “I never even drove a quad,” he said. He was unable to explain why his friends reported him “last seen on his quad” before they called his family to say he was missing. He also doesn’t understand why his family states that a sheriff’s deputy told them that Billy was spotted on his quad on August 18th, which is why law enforcement didn’t proceed with a missing person investigation.

Billy told me he didn’t know he was reported missing until he saw social media posts weeks later after his internet access was restored. He gave me consent to read some of his messages during that time period. One of them was from his mother, who was expressing concern for his safety after being told he was missing. He responded that he was safe and near the Happy Valley Ranch. Both messages was dated August 18th, 2021. I asked about the discrepancy and Billy responded that he must have been confused on the days.

I asked Billy if any investigators or law enforcement ever spoke with him about the Caldor Fire. “No, no one. Nobody came looking for me. No one interviewed me,” he replied. I questioned if he was ever aware that USDA agents went to his sister and mother’s home looking for him. “My mom said they went there to tell her I was found and okay. Nothing about the Caldor Fire,” Billy said.

Sources close to the investigation into the Smiths tell me that they believe Billy was indeed never questioned about the Caldor Fire nor Andy’s allegations, because no such report exists. Andy has told me previously he also was never questioned, and Amanda confirmed to me that no agent followed up with her after their initial interview.

Towards the end of our interview I went through Amanda’s story and Andy’s allegations again, asking Billy for any final thoughts. He said that Andy was lying “because he has something personal against me. My family is just lying, too. I wasn’t missing. They knew how to get ahold of me they just chose not to.” I asked one last time about Billy’s sister and the card left behind by USDA agents. “She isn’t being honest either. Like my mom said, those agents were just there to say I was okay,” he said.

As we wrapped up, I thanked Billy for his time and asked if I could follow up with additional questions in the coming days. He welcomed me to do so.

Despite numerous attempts, I never heard from Billy Freeman again.

This story will be updated if the friends purportedly with Billy Freeman on August 14th return my requests for comment.

Caldor Fire Witnesses Speak Out for the First Time: Part Two – Amanda’s Story

Travis Alvarez and Amanda Serum were at their home working on their side-by-side ATV on August 14, 2021. In minutes, Travis would test his repairs by driving down Caldor Road where he would encounter David and Shane Smith. The Smiths, who stand accused of recklessly starting the Caldor Fire, were in the process of calling 911 to report the flames when Travis came upon them that Saturday.

In the coming days Travis and Amanda’s lives would be turned upside down. Like so many across El Dorado County, they feared for their home, their family, and their livelihood. After leaving their house they first stayed with family and friends before they were forced to evacuate a second and third time as the fire grew. Eventually, Travis and Amanda found themselves tent camping on the property of Sheriff D’Agostini who had opened his land to evacuees.

It was while camping at the D’Agostinis that Travis and Amanda made a trip to Walmart to stock up on food and supplies. Walmart, too, had become a refuge of sorts for local evacuees looking for a place to pitch a tent, one of whom was an old friend of Amanda’s named Andy Freeman.

As Travis and Amanda were leaving Walmart, Andy called out to them. Travis continued on to the truck and waited while Amanda walked over to catch up with the friend she hadn’t seen in years. According to Travis, Andy appeared animated while Amanda looked surprised at what she was hearing. “Amanda looked shocked. It was obvious he was telling her something crazy. And when she got back in the truck she literally said, ‘I just heard the craziest shit in my life,'” Travis told me.

According to Amanda, her conversation with Andy opened with typical pleasantries shared between two people who haven’t seen each other in years. “I remember we just kind of asked how each other was. I said something like, ‘This is all so crazy,’ you know, talking about the evacuations. That’s when he said, ‘You want to really here something crazy?’ And that was it. He just started telling me this insane story about his dad, Billy,” Amanda told me.

According to friends, Billy Freeman is a local native who lives in a tent or makeshift cabin on land owned by a rancher in Happy Valley. He is known to drift across the county, camping near rivers and panning for gold. He is said to struggle with addiction issues and is estranged from some of his family.

Amanda recalls Andy telling her that his dad, Billy Freeman, had been missing for several days and family and friends were worried Billy was hurt or killed in the fire. However, according to Andy, Billy suddenly turned up and told Andy he was “hiding from the feds because he started the Caldor Fire.”

Shocked, Amanda asked Andy to clarify what he was saying. He explained that his dad was at a campsite in Dogtown Creek the afternoon of Saturday, August 14 where he started a “campfire and was doing drugs,” according to Amanda. Andy said that his dad “nodded off” and when he woke up, the campfire had spread and the surrounding trees and brush were ablaze.

Andy told Amanda that Billy then panicked, jumped on his quad, and took off. Over the next several days, Billy camped in various locations around the county in order to avoid investigators. When he finally turned up, Billy told Andy this entire story and claimed he started the Caldor Fire, according to Andy.

Andy also told Amanda that Billy has a history of starting unsafe campfires, some of which spread out of control. Andy claimed that Billy has been cited by law enforcement several times for illegal campfires, including one in the Cosumnes Mine area.

After her encounter with Andy, Amanda was so alarmed that she shared the story with the D’Agostinis who then contacted CalFire investigators. Eventually, the two investigators who interviewed Travis about his encounter with the Smiths also interviewed Amanda about her encounter with Andy Freeman.

I was able to obtain a recording of Amanda’s interview with the two investigators. In it, she clearly recounts the story Andy shared with her much as she recounted it with me. Towards the end of the recording, the investigators ask Amanda if she would be willing to share their contact information with Andy and encourage him to call their office. Amanda responds by reminding the agents that she isn’t in regular contact with Andy but would try to reach him on Facebook.

When I first stumbled upon this story, Andy Freeman was incarcerated and I was unable to ask him to confirm or deny Amanda’s account of what he told her that day in the Walmart parking lot. Instead, I began contacting family and friends of both Andy and Billy to see if they had information to share.

Everyone I spoke with recall that Billy was indeed missing. Andy’s aunt shared with me a family text dated August 17th, 2021 stating Billy had been missing “for days.” Billy’s niece remembers a family member calling her to say, “Billy’s neighbor on the ranch hasn’t seen him for days and thinks he went missing in the fire.” This phone call also took place on the 17th. Billy’s mother called his sister on the morning of August 18th to tell her Billy has been missing. The same sister then took to Twitter to plead with her followers to keep an eye out for her missing brother:

According to the family members, Billy’s mother called the El Dorado County Sheriff to report Billy missing. However, later on August 18th, just hours after the news began spreading on social media, a sheriff’s deputy contacted family to report that Billy was no longer missing. According to the deputy, Billy had been seen driving his quad early on the 18th and the missing person report could be closed.

After Billy was found, no one I interviewed from the family was told where Billy had been while missing. Two family members claim they asked Billy and he “avoided the question and started talking about something else.” Another told me they messaged Billy on Facebook and he “read the message but didn’t reply.”

I also spoke with a county resident who has been close friends with Billy for nearly 20 years. She recalls seeing Facebook and Twitter posts about Billy’s disappearance. “Given everything that was happening at that time, I thought he was dead. It was terrible,” she told me. After Billy turned up, she texted him to ask what happened. She said, “He just totally avoided the question. He told me he was up there on the ranch fighting the fire but didn’t say where he had been. I guess he didn’t want to talk about it. I was just glad he was okay.”

After weeks of interviews with Billy’s family and friends, a source contacted me to say Andy was being released from the county jail. Billy’s sister put me in contact with Andy and I immediately set up an interview.

“Look, I know you’re asking about my dad and the fire. What is it you want to know?” I didn’t have the chance to introduce myself before Andy Freeman was talking.

I wasn’t surprised Andy was already aware that I was investigating his father’s alleged connection to the Caldor Fire. I had spoken with what was probably half of his family by then and likely messaged the other half on Facebook and Twitter. What did surprise me, however, was his eagerness to talk about his dad.

I asked Andy to explain why people were telling investigators that he believes his father started the Caldor Fire. He told me that he never explicitly told anyone that Billy started the fire. However, he does remember talking about Billy with friends in the Walmart parking lot. “Yea I was talking with my homies. I for sure told them he probably did it. Because, you know, he probably did. I love my dad but he’s a fucking idiot,” Andy said.

I said I was surprised by the comment. I asked how he could tell a blogger, who is about to write this story, that is father “probably” started the most destructive wildfire in El Dorado County history. He explained, “Well, he did this shit all the time. He’d pass out and wake up and his campfire would be all over. He’s been cited for it. It’s the drugs. Again, I love my dad but he’s got problems with drugs. And plus, you know, he told me he was a suspect.”

Andy said he was informed that Billy was missing much like the rest of the family. “I don’t remember who it was. I think it was a neighbor that called my aunt to say he hadn’t seen my dad in awhile and was probably dead in the fire or something. I was fucking worried. Seriously worried,” Andy said.

Much like Amanda told me, Andy said that when Billy was found he told Andy that “the feds were looking for him for starting the Caldor Fire.” Andy asked his dad whether he did start the fire. “He never really answered. He just kept saying he was a suspect because of all those illegal campfires he got cited for,” Andy said.

According to Billy’s sister, USFS investigators were indeed suspicious of Billy. Days after the fire, two agents showed up at her house looking for Billy. “They wanted to know where he was. They said they were investigating the origination of the Caldor Fire. I remember them using that word, ‘origination.'” She hasn’t spoken with her brother in years, she told them, and was unable to say where he was living let alone where he was at the time the fire began. One of the agents left a card, asking her to contact them if she heard from Billy:

Throughout our interview, Andy repeatedly shared his suspicions about his father with me. “It was just shady as hell. I mean he disappears when the fire started. Then he turns up acting all weird. Says he was suspected of starting the fire. Won’t tell anyone where he was. I mean, shit, he probably did it,” he said.

Our conversation made clear that much of what Amanda shared with me, and investigators, is very similar to what Andy actually told her. The key difference, however, is that Andy claims to have told Amanda that Billy “probably” started the fire, whereas Amanda recalls Andy being more certain.

Towards the end of our interview, I reminded Andy that he was on the record and again asked if he still believes Billy could have started the fire. “100%. Absolutely. And it’s not ‘could have.’ He probably did it,” he replied. “I love him. He’s my dad. But if he did this? People should know.”

According to Andy, no investigator has spoken with him about his story. “I was just locked up for like 100 days. If they wanted to talk they knew where to find me,” he said.

After interviewing Amanda, reviewing the investigators’ recording, speaking with Billy’s family, and then finally interviewing Andy, the next step seemed logical: Contact Billy Freeman himself.

So I did.

Billy’s story will continue in Part Three.

Caldor Fire Witnesses Speak Out for the First Time: Part One – Travis’ Story

Early one evening in mid-August, Travis Alvarez and Amanda Serum were changing the oil in their side-by-side ATV. It was an ordinary day. Warm and breezy. The perfect day to fix up their ride and take it for a spin. They had no idea that, in just minutes, Travis would bear witness to the beginning of El Dorado County’s most destructive wildfire. Nor could they have predicted that, days later, a man would approach Amanda with a troubling story in which he claimed his father was responsible for starting the fire.

It was August 14, 2021. They were at their home just off Caldor Road and had invited their friend, David Hall, to stop by for a visit. David gave Travis a hand with the oil change, and they made quick work of a simple job. Wanting to make sure everything was running properly, Travis and David jumped in the side-by-side for a quick drive. Amanda stayed behind at the house.

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Caldor Fire: Mark Matthews, a 9mm, and the Case Against the Smiths

It was 6:49 pm on August 14, 2021 when Shane Smith called 911 to report a wildland fire off Caldor road near the Dogtown Creek drainage. Within days, Shane and his father, David Smith, would become the focus of investigators’ attempts to determine how the fire started.

David Smith is 66 years old and has lived in El Dorado County since the mid-1970s. He and his wife raised three children here and he has worked at the Pepsi plant in Elk Grove for 40 years. According to his attorney, David has no prior criminal history and TJR has been unable to find any criminal or arrest records in the State of California.

David’s son, Shane, is 32 years old and grew up in Somerset, California. After high school he became a certified electrician and currently lives and works in Folsom. Friends describe Shane as an avid outdoorsmen. Shane appears to have no criminal history and his lawyers claim he has never been arrested.

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