Opinion: Caldor Fire Investigators Should Have Questioned Matthews, Freeman

In the Fall of 2021, The Caldor Fire devastated the lives of thousands across El Dorado County. Many lost their homes, their jobs, their livelihoods. Many more lost their cherished landscape, the pristine nature that brought them here in the first place.

And now, the trauma continues. Families are struggling with the cost to rebuild. Some wonder if it’s worth it to rebuild at all. There’s building permits and land surveys and endless battles with insurance companies. Many residents are sorting through these mountains of paperwork while sorting through their own emotional loss and exhaustion.

For some, the struggles faced today are too much to consider who is responsible for the disaster and whether officials conducted a thorough investigation. They are, understandably, focused on putting one foot in front of the other. They are focused on how today’s phone call will go with their insurance agent. They are focused on healing.

For others, the process for healing requires answers and explanation. While they may be able to physically move forward, physically rebuild, emotionally they want to understand what happened, and why. In order to fully heal, these residents must know, who did this?

The El Dorado County District Attorney says the answer is simple: David and Travis (Shane) Smith recklessly started the Caldor Fire on August 14, 2021 near the convergence of Dogtown Creek and the Middle Fork of the Cosumnes River. In court documents, investigators say witnesses saw the Smiths near the fire’s origin around the time the fire began, and GPS data places them in the same area at the same time. Furthermore, ear plugs containing Shane’s DNA were recovered from the scene.

The Smiths and their attorneys, however, say none of this is in dispute. Both sides agree the Smiths were driving their ATV in the Dogtown area that day. Both agree Shane Smith called 911 to report a wildfire. Both agree the Smiths warned others in the area that a fire was growing down in the canyon. So, the Smiths’ lawyers contend, it makes sense both GPS data and witnesses place them in the area of the fire’s origin, and items with Shane’s DNA were later found at the scene.

In filings for a $1 million dollar bail request for each man, the DA cites text messages and social media posts that depict the Smiths as firearm enthusiasts, with Shane having a “general lack of concern for proper firearms safety.” The request also mentions bullet casings found near the fire’s general area of origin, suggesting the fire may have been started by shooting.

The DA’s filing does not specifically tie the bullet casings to the Smiths, only that “several bullet casings that appeared to have been recently discharged” were recovered near the scene. According to the Smiths’ attorneys, forensic testing did not indicate a match between the casings and any of the firearms seized by investigators. In fact, they say, they do not yet know what the DA’s theory is for how exactly the fire started.

After reviewing the DA’s filing and listening to arguments, a judge reduced bail from $1 million to $50,000 for Shane, and from $1 million to $25,000 for David. While further evidence was not presented to argue for the higher bail, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Even the Smiths’ attorneys concede that the discovery process is not complete and they can’t state with absolute certainty what the DA may, or may not, have.

For now it appears the DA has “proven” the Smiths were there that day, that they called 911, that they own firearms, and that Shane may have been irresponsible with at least one gun in his recent past. For the residents seeking answers as part of their healing process, they wonder if the DA’s evidence will be enough to secure a conviction at trial. If not, the questions then turn to the investigators: Was the process thorough? Were all possible suspects questioned, and properly eliminated, before the Smiths were accused?

Through months of my own research we have learned a lot about the Smiths and the DA’s allegations against them. We have also learned much about former Pioneer Fire Protection District Mark Matthews, first on scene to the Caldor Fire.

We now know Matthews has a troubled history stretching through California, Arizona, and Oregon. We know his own staff has accused him of everything from unsafe training practices to arson. We know he was investigated in Cochise County for his alleged connection to several suspicious fires, and that he suddenly left that county before the investigation was completed. We know a Sheriff investigator labeled Matthews’ management practices as “dangerous.” We know he was found in violation of at least 13 district policies and procedures just two and a half months before leaving Arizona and applying for the position of Fire Chief in Pioneer. We know that, as early as 2018, at least one CalFire arson investigator was looking into Matthews’ background and expressed suspicion of Matthews’ behavior.

None of this is to say Matthews started the Caldor Fire. However, given his questionable background and his record of arriving first on scene to many suspicious fires, including the Caldor Fire, it is reasonable to ask if he was properly eliminated as a suspect. Did investigators ask where he was when the fire started? Did Matthews offer his phone and GPS records to agents to assist in their investigation?

In interview reports from August and September, 2021, it appears Matthews was only asked to describe the location of what appeared to him to be the fire’s point of origin. This was done, according to the interviewer, to assist agents in accessing the difficult terrain. There is no suggestion Matthews was ever questioned by officials again. In an interview this past January, Matthews himself confirmed that agents had no further questions for him.

And while investigators zeroed in on the Smiths’ 911 call and social media posts, it appears Matthews isn’t the only individual they looked past. In the weeks following the fire, Andy Freeman told friends that his father, Billy, started the Caldor Fire. The comments were recorded in an interview by investigators last September.

Corroborating the story are Billy’s own friends and family who state he was missing at the time the fire began. Andy states that Billy discussed being the “number one suspect” in starting the Caldor Fire. Further, and by his own admission, Billy himself was cited by forest officials for multiple illegal fire rings and burn pits in the months before the fire began.

Yet, according to Billy, no investigator or law enforcement agent has ever spoken to Billy about anything related to the Caldor Fire. My own sources close to the investigation were unable to find indications that such an interview ever took place. And finally, the Smiths’ attorneys say they haven’t come across any mention of any interaction between investigators and Billy Freeman in the discovery process thus far.

Again, none of this is to say that Matthews or Freeman are responsible for starting the Caldor Fire. Instead, as I share my opinion here my questions are directed at investigators. If these men’s assertions are accurate, what led to the decision to not question them? What convinced agents that there was no need to interview either man about his whereabouts that day?

Of course, one possibility is that, in those early days of the investigation, agents already had irrefutable evidence that the Smith’s started the fire and, as such, there was no need to look at any other possibility. This would also necessitate that the DA chose to not include such evidence in their failed, million-dollar bail request.

We can be hopeful that investigators have the right suspects and evidence to prove to a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, that David and Shane Smith are responsible for starting the Caldor Fire. But, it’s my opinion, that we should also be prepared for a different outcome. What if the evidence in this case is so lacking that the Smiths case never makes it to trial? What if they are found not guilty? If the results of this investigation are so unclear, what does that mean for the healing process of so many fire victims across this county?

If the latter is the case, investigators should be prepared to answer questions about the Smiths, Mark Matthews, Billy Freeman, and who actually started this fire. While this county doesn’t receive much media attention nationally, or even statewide, the voice of wildfire survivors should never be underestimated. When clear answers aren’t offered, sometimes the questions grow loud enough to shift that media spotlight.

We have seen it in other communities across California devastated by wildfire, and there’s no reason to suggest it would be any different here.

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