MILPITAS, Calif. — A suspected arsonist traveled from Missouri to Northern California to set more than a dozen wildfires before attending his 50th high school reunion, a newspaper reported Saturday.
A former classmate told the San Jose Mercury News that Freddie Owen Graham appeared happy at the party on Sept. 21. Graham, a Milpitas, California-native who has lived in the Kansas City area for the past three decades, didn't seem troubled or upset, Rich Santoro said.
"He was excited to come. I talked to him five or six times during the night. He was happy he was there. He told me, 'I didn't expect to have this much fun.'" Santoro said. "It turns out he had already set the fires."
State fire investigators said Graham gave them a different impression.
After authorities arrested him at the airport in San Jose, Graham told them he was in an "emotional" state over the loss of his wife. The couple had previously planned to drive along the road together. But she died last year before they could travel together, and this upset him. He told investigators he used a lighter to set fire to napkins and a paper bag from a fast food restaurant. He said he threw the burning items out of his car window.
"Because she passed away and could not be with him, it made him emotional, starting the fires," the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection report said.
A metro woman said she talked with Graham before he set the California brush fires. She had met him on a dating app and liked him at first, but soon realized he was deeply and emotionally distraught over his wife's death.
Graham’s plea hearing is set for Monday, September 30, in Santa Clara County Superior Court. He is in the Santa Clara County Jail on a $2 million bond and has been assigned a public defender.
Prosecutors charged him with 13 counts of arson and two special counts of arson during a state of emergency, which was declared by Gov. Gavin Newsom in March ahead of the wildfire season.
Although the fires caused no injuries or structural damage, they took dozens of firefighters using aircraft, bulldozers, and other equipment hours to extinguish.
A citizen reported Graham after seeing him use his cell phone in a place without service -- which he found suspicious. The citizen wrote down the rental car's license plate number and notified firefighters. Investigators figured out the rental company then setup a meetup point. Cal Fire officers arrested Graham when he was returning a second rental car at the airport.