Sociology Professor Charged With Starting 4 California Wildfires

A former criminal justice professor was charged by a federal grand jury for allegedly starting four California wildfires in Northern California earlier in 2021.

Gary Stephen Maynard, 47, faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count, said the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California a statement Thursday.

But “any sentence, however, would be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables,” according to a news release from the Depatment of Justice.

Maynard allegedly started fires behind fire crews battling the sprawling Dixie Fire, which destroyed hundreds of structures in July and August, prosecutors said in court papers, according to media reports.

Maynard, a resident of San Jose, is alleged to have set the Cascade and Everitt fires in July, and he’s alleged to have started the Ranch and Conard fires on Aug. 7. The fires, prosecutors said, threatened to trap firefighters as they battled the larger Dixie Fire nearby.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Anderson said in an August detention memo that he started “setting fires behind the first responders fighting the Dixie Fire,” which “increased the danger to the first responders” on the scene, reported CBS News.

U.S. Forest Service began investigating Maynard on July 20 after the Cascade Fire was reported near Mount Shasta. Before he was arrested, officials said that he was living out of his car and traveling alone across Northern California, according to court papers.

He was found by an investigator underneath his black Kia Soul, which was stuck in a ditch as its undercarriage was stuck on a boulder, officials said. A tracking device was placed on his vehicle before his arrest.

Previously, he worked for several California colleges, including Santa Clara University, investigators confirmed to news outlets. He also worked at Sonoma State University, where he specialized in “criminal justice, social science research methods, cults and deviant behavior,” according to an archived Sonoma State webpage. He also has master’s degrees in political science, theater arts, and sociology as well as a Ph.D. in sociology.

Maynard has denied setting the fires, court papers say. It wasn’t immediately known whether he has an attorney who can speak on his behalf.

Maynard is in custody pending trial, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

Earlier this week, a judge in Shasta County, California, ruled that a Caltech graduate, 31-year-old Alexandra Souverneva, is mentally unfit to stand trial after she was charged with allegedly starting the Fawn Fire in Northern California. She was arrested in September and charged with arson in connection to the blaze.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.