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.