Steven Taylor Rutherford, of Banning, made his first court appearance Wednesday since his arrest in a series of fires in the Inland Empire. Investigators say evidence links Rutherford to nine fires since September 2011. Tony Shin reports from Yucaipa for the NBC4 News at 6 p.m. on July 3, 2013.
A 47-year-old Banning man has been charged in connection with nine fires, including a wildfire that burned more than 500 acres last month in San Bernardino County, according to authorities.
Authorities arrested Steven Taylor Rutherford June 28 in connection with fires in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The most damaging fire -- the Mill Fire in Yucaipa -- burned more than 500 acres and damaged two homes.
Rutherford pleaded not guilty Wednesday to 13 felony counts of arson, including use of delayed ignition devices to start some of the nine fires set from 2011 to 2013. His bail has been set for $5 million. If convicted, he could face up to 80 years in prison.
“He posed a significant threat to both of our counties and all that lived in the areas where he allaged to have started fires,” said Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins.
Authorities connected him with the series of arsons through a two-year investigation using lawfully placed GPS tracking devices on his vehicles and commercial business surveillance tapes, according to officials.
"You decide during this fire season to light a fire, that will be the last thing you light," said San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos. "Execpt for maybe the switch in your prison cell. We take these cases very serious and we will hold you responsible."
Rutherford is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday, and could face up to 80 years and four months in state prison if convicted as charged.
He was convicted of arson before in 1989, according to Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach, who assured the public that he’d never start a fire again.
“We here in the Inland Empire have unfortunately learned firsthand what serious and continual threats arsonists pose to our communities,” Zellerbach said in a press release. “The dangers serial arsonists like this can bring include significant loss of land, homes, and even life.”
Stephanie Dodd, Rutherford's sister, said he was adopted and always suffered from anger issues. He got divorced two years ago, around the time the arson spree began, she said.
Dodd said she began distancing herself from Rutherford after his 1989 conviction.
"When somebody in your family does something like this, you feel guilty because they have your name," she said. "A lot of people could have been hurt, firefighters could have been hurt. I'm glad they got him."
Rutherford is charged with starting the following arson fires, according to the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office:
Sept. 6, 2011: “Twin Fire”, Highway 243 at Twin Pines Road (acres burned: five)
Sept. 7, 2011: “Banning Fire”, Old Banning/Idyllwild Road, west of Highway 243 (acres burned: 55)
Sept. 11, 2011: “Summit Fire”, Highway 74 at Miler Marker 55 (acres burned: two)
Sept. 11, 2011: “Lambs Fire”, Gilman Springs Road, east of Sanderson (acres burned: 35)
Oct. 22, 2011: “Water Fire”, Whitewater Canyon, north of Interstate 15 (acres burned: 20)
Oct. 22, 2011: “Free Fire”, Mt. Edna Road, west of Highway 243 (acres burned: 10)
Sept. 9, 2012: “Edna Fire”, Highway 243, south of Banning near Mile Post 28 (acres burned: four)
June 28, 2013: “Smith Fire”, Highway 243, south of Banning near Mile Post 28 (acres burned: five)
June 28, 2013: “Mill Fire”, Mills Creak Road at Newport Road in Mentone (acres burned: 534)
Total acreage burned in the nine fires: about 670.
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