Editor’s note: Last month, Steven Taylor Rutherford, 49, of Banning pleaded guilty to 10 felony counts of arson. On Friday, Sept. 5, Judge Becky Dugan sentenced him to 45 years in prison.
Assistant District Attorney Amy Zeta led the prosecution of Rutherford. Riverside County and Cal Fire investigators identified the arsonist and collected the evidence leading to his conviction.
The following is an interview with Zeta and Riverside County Battalion Chief Tim Williams, who heads the Fire Preventions and Investigations units.
Although she joined the District Attorney’s office in 2008 directly from law school, Zeta has substantial experience prosecuting arson cases.
While a prosecution can go either way, “It doesn’t go to trial as a general rule,” she said. One reason Rutherford pleaded guilty was the “thorough investigation of Cal Fire,” Zeta said. “The volume of evidence and significance of evidence was overwhelming due entirely because of the Cal Fire investigation.”
Arson cases are very technical, she explained. Identifying the origin, the ignition and then connecting those with the arsonist is very technical, but does not necessarily make the trial more difficult, just more detailed and scientific.
She particularly praised Branden Smith, the investigating officer, and Gregg Ewing, both members of the investigation unit. “We’re a team and worked together both from investigation and the prosecution stages. I’m available to them reviewing and we work together the entire course of the case,” she said.
Arresting and prosecuting Rutherford was the second significant arson case win for Riverside County in recent years, according to Williams. His unit was also responsible for identifying and aiding the prosecution of Richard Oyler, convicted of starting multiple fires, including the October 2006 Esparanza Fire, where five U.S. Forest Service firefighters died.
“Between Oyler and Rutherford, there was quite a bit of similarity,” Williams added. “But there was no connection. They didn’t know each other. But for us it was déjà vu.”
Rutherford was arrested in June 2013, but Williams said he came to his unit’s attention as early as September 2012. “We started to build intelligence on him, as much as we could,” he said. It took time and intense effort because Rutherford had moved to Beaumont from Orange County. “We had to network with other law enforcement agencies,” Williams added.
Also during 2012, only one fire was attributed to Rutherford. This also slowed the investigation. But in 2013, the fires along Highway 243 began and he was a primary suspect.
As they accumulated evidence, the investigators identified Rutherford as the arsonist. The day he was arrested was also the day he started his last fire, the Mill Creek Fire in San Bernardino County.
“Arson investigation is hard work and Amy works very hard,” Williams confirmed. “There are a lot of sleepless nights, especially pretrial concerns. And we don’t walk away once the case goes to the DA.”
Arson is a very serious crime in this area, especially because of the terrain, the weather and now the drought, Williams stated and added, “I’m very happy with the result of this case. We were very determined not to have another Esperanza Fire.”