RIVERSIDE (CBSLA.com) — A convicted felon who allegedly ignited nine fires that burned a total of 670 acres throughout Riverside and San Bernardino counties was charged Wednesday with multiple counts of arson.
Steven Taylor Rutherford, 47, of Banning was arrested last week following a months-long investigation by Cal Fire. He has a prior conviction for arson from 1989, for which he received a year in jail and three years probation.
Rutherford could face 80 years in prison if convicted of 13 counts of arson, with sentence-enhancing allegations of using incendiary devices for the purpose of intentionally setting a fire and causing destruction of property.
He pleaded not guilty before Riverside County Superior Court Judge Becky Dugan, who scheduled a felony settlement conference for July 16 and kept the defendant’s bail at $5 million.
“This individual is a serial arsonist who poses a dangerous risk to the citizens of Southern California,” Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach said during a news briefing at the D.A.’s headquarters.
Zellerbach was joined by San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos, Riverside County Fire Department Chief John Hawkins, Cal Fire SoCal Regional Chief Dale Hutchinson and Deputy District Attorney Amy Zeta, who will be prosecuting the Rutherford case.
Investigators allege the defendant is responsible for nine fires in the San Gorgonio Pass and southern San Bernardino County going back to Sept. 6,2011.
The most recent blaze, the “Mills Fire,” occurred June 28 in the area of Mills Creek and Newport roads on the outskirts of Mentone, scorching 534 acres and damaging four properties, including two homes.
“We have a zero tolerance for arson,” Hawkins said. “You can’t measure the impact just in acres; there’s destruction of homes, damage to other property, evacuations, people frightened of losing everything.”
“Arsonists are cowards,” Ramos said. “They light and run. We take these cases very seriously.”
Reporting for CBS2, Adrianna Weingold said Rutherford’s defense asked that he undergo a psychiatric evaluation. He’ll be back in court on July 16.
Rutherford is being held at the Robert Presley Jail in downtown Riverside.
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