MADERA – As week six got underway in Madera Superior Court in the preliminary hearing of Coarsegold residents Kenneth Jackson and Allison Waterman, the focus turned to a large map of the YLP/Coarsegold area offered into evidence by the prosecution.
The map was dotted with little red stars showing the locations of the many fires listed in the 31 counts of arson against the couple, who were arrested on June 25. The map also showed 8 circles indicating camera locations.
Beginning on May 28, investigators began installing surveillance cameras throughout the Yosemite Lakes Park area after weeks of suspicious fires.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Bernie Quinn testified that there was a camera at both ends of Yosemite Springs Parkway, another on Road 400 at Road 415, a fourth on Road 400 near Best Way, and one on Lilley Mountain Road near Road 400.
A game camera was installed at another location on Lilley Mountain, and investigators also reviewed footage from a private security system on John Muir Drive that had two cameras capturing traffic along that road.
The last camera was installed on East Revis Circle, this one by YLP Security. Jackson and Waterman live at the end of this cul de sac where seven fires burned during the six-week period covered by the investigation.
Quinn testified that they began collecting footage in the first few days of June.
Cal Fire Captain Branden Smith then took the stand and told the court that he was dispatched to Madera County on June 17 to assist in the ongoing investigation, with the specific task of reviewing the data captured by the cameras, along with several other investigators.
“The camera captures the vehicle, direction of travel, license plate, date and time,” said Smith. “They can also show the color of the vehicle, whether it’s 2-door or 4-door, lifted or lowered.”
Investigators examined video in the 20 minutes before and after each fire that was reported in the area. For example, Smith testified that on June 8, a 2003 Yamaha motorcycle registered to Jackson was seen on video three times within that time frame, before and after a fire on Road 415.
He told the court that the motorcycle was captured on video at 12:15 p.m., traveling away from the area of a fire that was reported at 12:25. The motorcycle was then seen traveling back towards the fire at 12:41, and leaving the area again at 12:47.
One vehicle of specific interest was the 1998 black Dodge pickup owned by Kenneth Jackson. This vehicle, Smith testified, was seen 16 times within the time window after investigators began collecting video.
Deputy District Attorney John Thackary asked Smith if, after the cameras were installed, there was ever a fire at which one of the defendants’ vehicles was not captured either before or after, to which he replied, “No.”
On Sunday, June 23, Captain Smith installed both covert and stick trackers on Jackson’s pickup and Waterman’s Toyota Sequoia, after having secured a warrant.
Assistant Chief William Anderson was the man in charge of monitoring the GPS tracking. He took the stand next and told the court that the trackers established a “geo-fence” around the Jackson/Waterman residence, and that any time one of their vehicles left the area, he would receive and email, log onto his computer and track the vehicle. He would also assign unmarked units to “loosely trail” the suspects.
Anderson said that on Tuesday, June 25, Jackson’s black pickup was tracked and caught on video traveling in the area of a fire along Road 400 that burned some 9 acres. He stated that the vehicle made a u-turn near River Road Way at 3:07 p.m., and then passed by an area where a fire was reported at 3:28.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Matthew Gilbert investigated the fire, and testified that there was no incendiary device found in the specific origin area of the fire, but he did collect three unidentified pieces of a rock-type substance.
Defense attorney Greg Gross then asked Gilbert if he was familiar with meteorites, and wanted to know if foreign matter from space was part of his analysis. Gross asked Gilbert if the items had been analyzed and if he had determined whether or not there had been meteor activity in the area that day. Gilbert responded that he had done neither of those things.
The testimony then turned to rest of that day, Tuesday June 25, and what happened to convince investigators it was time to shift gears.
As the number of fires continued to grow, and with firefighters responding to up to three fires a day on weekends, Chief Anderson told the court that at this point, investigators had to weigh public safety against the gathering of more information on the suspects.
It would be later that evening, after yet another fire behind the Jackson/Waterman residence, that the decision was made to place the couple under arrest.
(Read Part II of this report The Last Fire & The Arrest)