Transient arrested in Sebastopol feed store fire
By RANDI ROSSMANN
Sebastopol police Wednesday morning arrested a transient whom they say started the huge fire that destroyed Frizelle Enos Feeds, the town’s longest running business and a downtown landmark for 80 years.
Surveillance video from a nearby building caught the man apparently lighting matches and setting them at the base of hay bales, said Sebastopol Police Chief Jeff Weaver.
Saturday evening’s fire caused an estimated $2.8 million damage — a total loss of the building and the business.
Police readily recognized the man in the video — west county transient Steven Barton Edmonds, 53 — they’d arrested him 73 times since 2005, said Weaver.
He was known as a petty criminal, often drunk. And he’d just gotten out of the Sonoma County Jail four days before he allegedly set the fire, Weaver said.
As part of the fire investigation Sebastopol police and firefighters had been reviewing surveillance video from various downtown businesses, hoping to spot something.
Early Wednesday they watched the one that led to the arrest.
By about 8:45 a.m. Sgt. Mike Nielsen was looking for Edmonds. He found him about an hour later not far from the fire scene.
Edmonds was near the U.S. Post Office on Main Street — about a block from the blackened shell of the Frizelle Enos building.
“It’s good news. It helps put closure to it,” said Frizelle Enos Feeds owner Darrel Freitas.
“It’s unfortunate that it was really arson. It would have been better if it had been an accident. I’m glad they caught him,” said Sebastopol Mayor Michael Kyes.
Building owner Tennyson Tucker had a different reaction, saying he was relieved about the arrest and glad it wasn’t random.
“I was happy. I’m glad it wasn’t just an accident. Someone throwing a cigarette out. That’s kind of what I thought it was,” said Tucker.
Police weren’t aware of a motive for the fire, but said Edmonds at times broke the law on purpose to get himself arrested.
Frizelle Enos, a large warehouse-like building, for almost a century was the downtown’s southeastern anchor.
It was a popular west county go-to spot for backyard farmers and pet owners for its range of items for sale and country charm.
Saturday the store closed at 5 p.m. and one employee, a female, was left inside finishing up for the day when the fire started.
By about 5:40 p.m. callers were dialing 911 to report seeing flames in the hay.
Hundreds of hay bales had been stacked up along the outside of the Petaluma Avenue building.
The fire quickly spread into the building and grew until it consumed the business.
More than 80 firefighters from seven agencies came with 25 engines. They fought the blaze and hot spots long into Sunday morning. The fire didn’t spread to any nearby buildings.
Since Saturday night’s fire, officials had said there was something suspicious about the blaze, with the possibility it was set on purpose.
By late Sunday, police and fire officials had information pointing at Edmonds as a possible suspect, but others also remained under suspicion, Weaver said.
Wednesday’s video viewing gave them definitive evidence regarding Edmonds, said Weaver.
The video showed the man approaching the hay, manipulating something, which police believed were matches. He then placed them near the base of the hay before walking away, Chief Weaver said.
It showed Edmonds in the same area where callers said they first saw flames.
Weaver on Wednesday declined to release a copy of the surveillance footage, saying it was part of the ongoing investigation.
Edmonds was arrested on suspicion of arson and booked into the Sonoma County Jail. He also was being held for violating his probation on a prior petty theft charge.
His bail was set at just over $1 million, according to jail records.
An arson arrest typically garners bail of $100,000. But Sebastopol police asked for 10 times that due to the potential for loss of life.
Edmonds’ long history of arrests have mostly involved misdemeanors — being drunk in public, theft and repeatedly violating his probation.
None of the Sebastopol arrests involved fires, Weaver said, and few were felonies.
Homeless, he moved mostly between Sebastopol and Guerneville and also was well known to Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies who’d arrested him repeatedly in recent years.
Weaver estimated the total number of Edmonds’ arrests could add up to well over 100.
On July 9, deputies had taken him to jail on suspicion of vandalism. He was released later that day.
“At least twice he’s gone out to commit a crime with the intent of being arrested,” said Weaver.
Edmonds has walked into the Sebastopol police station carrying a beer, knowing that having alcohol violated his probation and would force officers to arrest him, Weaver said.
“In this case I don’t know if that would be his motive. He didn’t stand around and take credit for (the fire,)” the chief said.
A check of the man’s Sebastopol arrests showed none involving the Frizelle Enos business or property, said Weaver.
Citing all of the arrests in the suspect’s history, Mayor Kyes suggested “He shouldn’t have been out on the street. It speaks to the failure of our society to deal with people who can’t deal with themselves.”
Tucker, who’d owned Frizelle Enos for decades, sold it about three years ago to Freitas and two partners, but still owned the building.
He’s trying to move fast to get the building rebuilt and said he’ll meet with an engineer Monday to determine what, if any, of the remains can be saved.
“Hopefully we can save part of the building and rebuild the rest. I think that’s what the community would like,” Tucker said. “It’s been a Sebastopol icon for a long time.”
Freitas and partners Don Benson and Glenn Bach also own the Penngrove Frizelle Enos store. Freitas said the outpouring of support from the community in light of the business loss has helped ease a sad situation.
“The store has been there through generations. It’s great to see the town support us as much as they do,” Freitas said.
He and his partners hope to open a retail store at a temporary site until Tucker can rebuild. They’ve already been checking out Sebastopol options including the old Pellini Chevrolet lot just next door.
But it didn’t appear that site would work, he said, due in part to structural problems.
“We’re trying to find a location in Sebastopol to still service the community. We haven’t been able to find one yet. But we’re still continuing to look,” Freitas said. “We’re trying to move forward.”