Cal Fire says it's caught a serial arsonist - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Cal Fire says it's caught a serial arsonist

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SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) - For the past 9 years, Cal Fire investigators have been chasing a serial arsonist who used casino matchbooks to start wildfires in the East County. Now, a Poway man is charged with starting 5 of those fires, but investigators believe he may be responsible for more.

"Cal Fire has been investigating a series of wildfires dating back several years," says Deputy District Attorney Andrew Aguilar.

The series of arson fires in the East County began in 2006 and right away, Cal Fire noticed the arsonist was leaving a calling card. The arsonist would leave match books from the Barona Casino which were used to start some of the fires.

Last week, Cal Fire investigators arrested 44-year-old Jonathan Cohen and charged him with starting the 5 most recent fires. They were able to catch him by installing hidden cameras with license plate readers on back country roads. Investigators noticed that Cohen's car was regularly showing up at the same time the fires started.

"There have been cameras that were used along Wildcat Canyon Road as well as GPS tracker data in the later stages," says Aguilar.

Investigators installed GPS tracking devices on Cohen's Volkswagen Golf, as well as on his parents Toyota pickup. They then issued an arrest warrant and took Cohen into custody near his home in Poway.

"I think if he did it, they should lock him up and never let him out," says Don Goodner, a neighbor of Cohen's.

Friends say Cohen works as a boat mechanic and lives with his adult daughter and other roommates. Cohen's neighbor, himself a retired firefighter, remembers seeing police serving a search warrant at the home.

"They brought a bunch of stuff out in bags. I don't know what exactly was there. I didn't ask them. I didn't talk to the police," says Goodner.

Investigators also took evidence from Cohen's vehicle. Cal Fire suspects Cohen may be responsible for as many as 12 arson fires. Cohen's attorney says there are no witnesses or direct evidence pointing to his client.

"As I understand it, the case is entirely a circumstantial case against him with no forensic evidence whatsoever," says David Thompson, a public defender. "Mr. Cohen still has the right to a fair and unbiased jury pool."

The Cal Fire investigation is ongoing and prosecutors say more arson charges could be added later. Most of the fires were small and none of the fires resulted in any injuries or damage to structures.

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