BREAKING: CHARGES AGAINST ARSON SUSPECT DROPPED

BREAKING: CHARGES AGAINST ARSON SUSPECT DROPPED

Michele Ellson
Stephen Petersen

Updated at 1:31 p.m. Saturday, November 1

Charges against Stephen Petersen in connection with a string of fires were dropped Friday. Contributed photo.

Arson charges against one of the two men accused of setting a string of fires on and around Park Street on September 28 have been dropped. Alameda police said Stephen Petersen, 27, of Alameda has been eliminated as a suspect in the fires based on evidence collected over the past several weeks.

Police said Friday that Andrew Resto Gutierrez, 22, will be charged with setting all seven fires and that he is their sole suspect in the arson case. A man police identified as Gutierrez was caught on video at the scene of a fire that caused $2.6 million in damages to businesses on the 1600 block of Park Street, and Gutierrez has admitted to starting one of the fires. But police said Friday they've developed additional evidence linking Gutierrez to the other fires.

Alameda police said Friday that they arrested Petersen at the scene of one of the fires and that a police sergeant and a firefighter positively identified him as having been at the scene of two earlier fires. They said Petersen made a U-turn on his bicycle away from an officer who sought to speak to him and that Petersen invoked his right to remain silent after being arrested and would not talk to police.

Friends of Petersen's questioned his arrest, saying he was working the sound board at Rooster's Roadhouse until between 1:20 a.m. and 1:45 a.m. depending on the account. And police who searched Petersen's computer and phone records were unable to establish a connection between the two men, Alameda Police Chief Paul Rolleri said Friday.

Last week, Petersen's attorney produced video that showed he was shopping at Safeway in Alameda South Shore Center at around 2:20 a.m., police said Friday. Petersen was arrested at 2:30 a.m. September 29 on the 2100 block of San Jose Avenue, which is between the shopping center and his apartment.

"He probably was at the wrong place at the wrong time," Rolleri said, adding that he now doesn't believe Petersen could have been at the scene of the fires on Regent Street.

Petersen, who faced charges in connection with three fires, was jailed for several weeks but had recently had his bail reduced and was released on bond. Petersen's friends strongly proclaimed his innocence, launching a campaign on social media and printing up T-shirts seeking his freedom. They celebrated his release in the courtroom and online.

Reached via Facebook on Saturday, Petersen thanked his supporters and expressed a desire to help victims of the fires, which caused an estimated $3 million in damage and displaced several people.

"I'd just like to say thank you to everyone for all the support and I'm glad things have worked out as I always knew they would," Petersen said. "I'm very sorry that this tragedy happened in my hometown and as soon as I am able I want to help those (affected) by the fires.

"I lost time, money, and my well being for a little while, but the arson victims lost more and no one should have to suffer through that," he added.

Comments

Submitted by frank on Fri, Oct 31, 2014

I am so glad for this. None of the charges against him made any sense at all since day one. https://www.facebook.com/freestephenpetersen

Submitted by charlie (not verified) on Fri, Oct 31, 2014

I think you mean: bad police work can be expensive! You said yourself, "He was innocent but had to hire a lawyer to dig up video and witnesses to clear him." If you think simply "explaining yourself" to the police is going to magically make everything okay, you should watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wXkI4t7nuc.
Exercising your constitutional rights does not make you a jerk, nor does it make you responsible for being railroaded by incompetent police officers.

Submitted by frank on Fri, Oct 31, 2014

Were you there Bette? Police make things up all the time to justify their actions. You should not go around calling people jerks.

Submitted by chris (not verified) on Fri, Oct 31, 2014

Bette, attitudes like yours cost us our freedoms. You do not owe the police any sort of explanation. You are well within your rights to not speak to them. Their job is to solve the crime, citizens have no obligation to assist.
I'm sure he spoke to them after he was arrested once his attorney was present...did it help anything? Nope, he was still detained with a high bail until they seized and searched his personal belongings and realized they were detaining an innocent man. Sounds like a strong case for a lawsuit to me. What happened to until innocent until proven guilty?

Submitted by chris (not verified) on Fri, Oct 31, 2014

'claim your civil rights'
Really? You don't want yours? You really should talk with someone from a country where these rights don't exist so you have a better appreciation for them.

Submitted by Adam Gillitt (not verified) on Fri, Oct 31, 2014

I am looking forward to Marie's apology for demanding that Mr. Petersen be drawn and quartered.

Submitted by David (not verified) on Fri, Oct 31, 2014

When will law enforcement learn that invoking one's rights not to communicate with the police is not automatically evidence of guilt?

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson:
"Under this conception of criminal procedure, [i.e. the current system in the U.S.] any lawyer worth his salt will tell the suspect in no uncertain terms to make no statement to police under any circumstances."

https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/338/49/case.html

Submitted by Alan (not verified) on Fri, Oct 31, 2014

It would not surprise me if he had a previous experience with the Justice System, in which case attempting to avoid an encounter with the police would be perfectly understandable. Reminds me of the old saying that opening a can of worms will inevitably require a larger can to get them all back in. The larger can being time spent in jail, bond costs, lawyer costs, loss of income, friends' support, frustration, anxiety. It's not easy to extract yourself from the system, innocence is helpful but in itself is not enough.

Submitted by frank on Fri, Oct 31, 2014

He actually had a very competent Public Defender

Submitted by Knarf (not verified) on Fri, Oct 31, 2014

Glad to hear ... he needs to sue APD now.

Submitted by Steve Gerstle on Fri, Oct 31, 2014

This poor fellow is paying more in terms of jail time, bail costs, lost income, attorneys fees and mental anguish than many convicted of crimes. Statements like this from our Mayor helped to feed the frenzy.

"I ask that you charge the suspects for the crimes for which they were arrested. Your office will receive the full cooperation from the City of Alameda's Police and Fire Departments with the prosecution. "
http://alamedaca.gov/sites/default/files/document-files/article-files/da...

There were also statements from other public officials of a similar nature. If this can happen to one Alamedan, it can happen to any of us. The matter needs a thorough investigation from a neutral agency. In the meantime, this man needs to be helped to recover from the trauma that he has suffered.

Submitted by Allison Martin (not verified) on Fri, Oct 31, 2014

I used to defend the Alameda Police but this has turned me around 360. This is not the end of the story for Stephen, I can't imagine what he has gone through and how he'll ever get over it. The APD/City/Mayor need to apologize and they should pay for his defense attorney (unless as someone said above he had a Public Defender that didn't cost him anything). Hope he does get a good lawyer and sue.

Submitted by Kevis Brownson (not verified) on Fri, Oct 31, 2014

It is a bit scary how many people assume there must be some connection with the crime for someone to have been arrested, and that not talking to the police is some sort of admission of guilt. I have sat in the jury box several times, and heard audio tapes from the police car transporting the suspect to the station. The police do say things like, "We are good guys, we are just trying to help you out. It will be better for you if you just tell us exactly what happened." "I'm sure you didn't mean to hurt anyone when ___________, it was probably all a big mistake. Why don't you tell us your side?" Then whatever is said is used in court. There are plenty of people wrongly accused of crimes as the Innocence Project has revealed to us.

Submitted by Steve Gerstle on Fri, Oct 31, 2014

Police said they’re confident they have the right people in custody based on the evidence they’ve collected; they haven’t yet disclosed any motive for setting the fires. Alameda police are also looking into whether the pair set other fires in Oakland.

“I feel confident that we have the two people responsible for this,” Alameda Police Chief Paul Rolleri said.

But some of Petersen’s friends expressed disbelief that the guitar player, who they described as nonviolent, could have been involved in setting the fires. And they said he was at work during the time the first fires started.
http://thealamedan.org/news/friends-question-arrest-arson-suspect

This was a hot button issue during the Mayor's re-election campaign with police and fire personnel involved in the Mayor's re-election bid. Is it typical for these type of statements to be made in criminal investigations? Does the mayor of a city typically write to the District Attorney urging prosecution and pledging the full cooperation of the police and fire departments?

Submitted by luczai (not verified) on Sat, Nov 1, 2014

I wonder if a guy in a business suit in a Mercedes would have been "in the wrong place at the wrong time" if he had been out and about in the neighborhood and, even if he had been arrested, would he have sat in jail so long? I think we all know the answer. Very worrying how the police and the Mayor rushed to judgment in this case. It didn't seem right from the start.

Submitted by David (not verified) on Sat, Nov 1, 2014

Given the circumstances surrounding this case - two quick arrests, one false, it turns out, within hours of the fires, an early-Sunday morning press conference, and an immediate, completely un-necessary but politically opportunistic letter to the DA from a Mayor in the midst of a re-election campaign, where the firefighters union is campaigning heavily for her, I think the identities of the firefighter and police sergeant that mis-identified Petersen are relevant.

Michelle, I hope you are pressing Alameda PD to release the names of those two people so the public can make their own evaluations.

http://www.saveourcityalameda.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/da_arson_lt...

Submitted by David (not verified) on Sat, Nov 1, 2014

Bette - I couldn't disagree with you more. I wonder if growing up in unsafe inner city neighborhoods, which have historically been subject to aggressive policing, has inculcated in you a sense that you aren't permitted to assert your civil rights?

Because that's what the complaints in Ferguson and other inner-city neighborhoods across America, where people feel oppressed by the police and other authorities, are really all about.

And probable cause is not as simple as you would make it out to be. Refusing to talk to police on its own does not automatically establish probable cause.

For those that are interested, you may want to read the Alameda County D.A. office Point of View magazine - the current issue has the DA's office take on Probable Cause.

http://le.alcoda.org/publications/point_of_view/files/POV_Fall_2014.pdf

Submitted by A Neighbor (not verified) on Sat, Nov 1, 2014

Can you post a photo of Steven where he is more relaxed? This one may be a mug shot, which are rarely (if ever) flattering.

Let's help him get his life back together.

Submitted by Wendy (not verified) on Sat, Nov 1, 2014

Marie Gilmore needs to apologize on national news. It was obvious the man was innocent from the get-go. Any turkey could read the evidence and he should have been let go that morning! He was in jail for a long time. He seems like a just and decent guy, maybe he should run for mayor of Alameda and bring morals, justice, and truth into Alameda's government, something it's been strongly lacking since DeHaan left.

Submitted by frank on Sat, Nov 1, 2014

Bette you just make things up as you go along. First he 'made a u-turn' on his bike and now he is 'standing around watching a building burn smelling of accelerant'. NONE OF THIS IS TRUE!!!!! If you keep making things up you could be sued.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Sat, Nov 1, 2014

Hey 'Neighbor: I'd be happy to run another photo if you could get me one, or could have someone send me one? We typically don't take photos off Facebook or other sources without permission. Thanks! I'm at michele@thealamedan.org.

Submitted by Lisa (not verified) on Sat, Nov 1, 2014

Bette, Stephen handled himself extremely well and did everything an intelligent person in his situation could have done. He shut his mouth and let the evidence and lack of evidence do the talking for him. In doing so he eliminated the possibility that his words could be twisted or misinterpreted, or that he might unknowingly align himself with the suspicious activity (the ironic thing about actually being innocent is you don't know what happened so you can't explain what you didn't do--the opening scene from My Cousin Vinny captures this perfectly).

You don't know why he made a U-turn on his bike or if that ever even happened. You just read in an article by a journalist who is probably paraphrasing from a statement based on a police report that was prepared for purposes of prosecution, you absorbed it as gospel truth, and tried to spit it back in an innocent person's face as proof they are a "jerk." You convicted him of being a jerk on insufficient evidence easily enough. Just like a guy in another article sadistically mocked the claim that Stephen was innocent because there was surveillance footage. Well, that person failed to recognize that the surveillance evidence mentioned in the article was of Gutierrez, not of Stephen.

I really like how your second comment switched to inner-city kid and started making fun of his being white. Because you felt the need to change your story to make yourself sound more credible and knowledgeable about the dynamics of the justice system, right?

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Sat, Nov 1, 2014

Hi Lisa: I have a clarification for you regarding the bit about the U-turn. This was something specific that Alameda police told me, and was not paraphrased out of a police report.

Submitted by David (not verified) on Sat, Nov 1, 2014

I have thought more about Bette's initial comments...

I have no doubt that Bette has borne witness to or even experienced racially discriminatory policing in the inner-city neighborhoods she grew up in.

Nonetheless, I don't think Petersen, or anyone in his shoes, should have tried to exercise any real or imagined 'white privilege' by trying to 'splain himself to law enforcement that night. The job of the police is to find someone to prosecute, not rule people out.

Watch that 'Don't talk to the police' video - both parts 1 and 2, and see the former cop count on zero fingers how many times a suspect has talked their way out of arrest.

We all know the line from Miranda "...anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law..." from popular media. Petersen did the right thing by not talking before or after.

Rather than trying to exercise white privilege, I'd prefer that everyone, of whatever race or color, whether in an inner-city neighborhood or an 'elite' white suburb, fully understand their rights, and law enforcement not use the exercise of those rights as an indication of guilt.

Submitted by John Zugnoni (not verified) on Sat, Nov 1, 2014

This is the Mayor who, as far as I can recall, has NEVER criticized the Alameda police or fire personnel for allowing the death of Raymond Zack, by hypothermia, a longer process than simple drowning, off Crown Beach on Memorial Day in May 2011. Neither this Mayor, nor any of other current members of the City Council nor the current City Manager, all of whom were on their jobs when the lawsuit went to Court, have ever expressed dissent from the City's legalistic contention that the police and fire personnel did not bear any duty to try to rescue Mr. Zack? The City's argument did not represent the views and the interests of the citizens of Alameda. Has it ever occurred to Mayor Gilmore and the other City officials that the reason first boast sent to the scene could not navigate in such shallow waters is that the Coast Guard expected that land-based personnel would be able to effect a rescue so close to the shore? Have this Mayor, any of the other four City Councilmembers, including the two who are not seeking our votes next week, the current City Manager, or the current City Attorney ever apologized for the conduct of the police and fire personnel in the death of Mr. Zack? Do not expect an apology at this critical time in their respective political lives.

As one observant follower of Alameda politics has stated, "There is not a culture known on earth" which would find the conduct of the Alameda police and fire personnel in the death of Mr. Zack to be acceptable.

Submitted by Randy (not verified) on Sat, Nov 1, 2014

I don't like talking to cops either but I only would try to get away from them if I was guilty of something like maybe drunk bike ridding or public intoxication, But I do think some cops go a little to far trying to be a good cop.

Submitted by Elisabeth (not verified) on Sat, Nov 1, 2014

That the mayor took the opportunity to write a letter fully backing prosecution to the fullest extent of the law during the last weeks before an election is an egregious example of executive grandstanding. And now that the charges have been dropped, due to the lack of due diligence of the police. #1. What do we pay the police to do, if not to have actual probable cause and a case before charge people for a crime? #2. How can we now be confident that the other guy did all of that mayhem? #3. Do we want Marie "fullest extent of the law" for mayor again? I'm voting for Spencer.

Submitted by Karen Bey (not verified) on Sat, Nov 1, 2014

I think we should not politicize this – there were many victims that night, including the families that lost their homes and businesses.

The police were doing their job that night, and after discovering that Petersen was innocent – he was released. Instead of trying to find a “Raymond Zack” comparison – let’s be grateful our community came together to support the families who lost everything and be grateful that Petersen is free and can now move on with his life.

Submitted by Liza (not verified) on Sun, Nov 2, 2014

"Alameda police said Friday that they arrested Petersen at the scene of one of the fires and that a police sergeant and a firefighter positively identified him as having been at the scene of two earlier fires."

Actually, he did NOT fit the description. In court, the DA said that a firefighter and a police officer had each identified Mr. Petersen as being at the scene of two previous fires; but they each described a white man wearing light colored clothes, on foot. At the time of his arrest, Mr. Petersen was in dark colored clothes, and on a bicycle.

The mayor's letter to the DA's office on September 29th asked that both suspects be charged, before any chance of investigation was allowed.

http://alamedaca.gov/sites/def...

Indeed, charges were brought before anyone from the Alameda Police Department had even spoken with Mr. Petersen's work alibi.

This rush to "hang 'em high" smacks of politics and CYA back peddling.

There are A LOT of people in the Alameda City Government who owe Mr. Petersen a very public apology.

I only wish I believed we would see it.

Submitted by Tom (not verified) on Sun, Nov 2, 2014

If Mayor Gilmore is the author of the letter to the DA, she should be removed from office.

Submitted by David (not verified) on Sun, Nov 2, 2014

Tom - there is no doubt that Gilmore is the author of the letter to the D.A. - it's available on the City website and was distributed to the media - and reported in the media - as coming from her desk.

Karen - Gilmore politicized this event the moment she drafted that un-necessary, politically opportunistic, letter to the D.A.

And let's be clear - Alameda police DID NOT release Petersen. His public defender was able to get the bail amount lowered so he could get of Santa Rita pending trial, and prosecutors from the District Attorney's office - not Alameda police - dropped the charges when they realized they didn't have a case.

Submitted by Allison Martin (not verified) on Sun, Nov 2, 2014

Yes, Mayor Gilmore is the author of the letter to the DA. You can find the letter here: http://alamedaca.gov/sites/default/files/document-files/article-files/da...

Submitted by tom (not verified) on Sun, Nov 2, 2014

David and Karen

Thanks for the feedback

Peterson certainly should get an apology from the mayor.....but I am sure she will defend the position she took on the issue....just as she kept her mouth shut on the fire non rescue of Zack...

The Council needs to be cleaned out of at least two members. Both Chen and Gilmore. Unfortunately the mayor is not up for re-election this year....but hopefully Stewart Chen will not be returned to the dias..... Oddie shouldn't be there too!!!!

Submitted by A Neighbor (not verified) on Sun, Nov 2, 2014

Wait! Not so fast!!
Trish Spencer is running against Gilmore for mayor!
The election is Tuesday, November 4----just two days from today.

Submitted by frank on Mon, Nov 3, 2014

@Tom
"Unfortunately the mayor is not up for re-election this year...."
You either don't live here or haven't read your Ballot

Submitted by Karen Bey (not verified) on Mon, Nov 3, 2014

David et al,

One of the roles of Mayor is to support its citizens against acts of terrorism. Arson is a form of domestic terrorism. As Mayor, her first and main concern was as it should be - the protection of Alameda residents and businesses.

You may find this interesting that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) lists arson as the number one domestic threat to the United States.

The important discussion we should be having right now is how do we protect ourselves from this act of domestic terrorism in the future? First, we need to cooperate and be in communication with the Alameda Police Department.

As I said earlier, Petersen was released and will move on with his life – but the homes and businesses that were destroyed as a result of this act are a permanent reminder of this domestic threat.

Submitted by Laura (not verified) on Mon, Nov 3, 2014

Nice one Karen: defending our Mayor's re-election campaign tactics with a return to the bad ol' days of domestic terrorism threats, complete with WMDs (domestic arson demands pre-emptive action no matter of truth/guilt, right?) and a denial that cause and effect matter (no non-important discussions allowed here because your "important discussion" idea on domestic terrorism matters more, right?). Sorry, but justifying this poor example of local democracy as exemplary of Gilmore's leadership speaks volumes: no matter who wins, the veil must remain? Well, I say boooooooooo to that!

Submitted by David (not verified) on Mon, Nov 3, 2014

Karen - it sounds ominous. It sounds kind of like the scare mongering we hear on the Fox news cable channel and from certain Republican members of congress.

Submitted by Karen Bey (not verified) on Mon, Nov 3, 2014

If it was your home or business that was destroyed by arson, you would of course have a different perspective. As long as it happens to the other guy -- right? Its clear that you can't see the larger purpose through those "anti-Marie" lenses.

Submitted by Neighbor of Par... (not verified) on Mon, Nov 3, 2014

Unlike some of the others posting here, I have been a supporter of Marie Gilmore and thought that her tenure as mayor has been a good period for Alameda. I intended to vote for her again, until the September 29 letter that she sent about the arson fires. This letter, sent the day after the fires, promised the case files would be forwarded the next day and asked the DA to "....charge the suspects for the crimes for which they were arrested." Both were charged September 30, despite that Stephen Petersen did not match the description, and despite that his coworkers had been trying to give statements that would tend to exonerate him, also on the 29th (they were not able to get through to police that day). Without the political letter pressuring the DA to charge the two suspects, would the police have been able to gracefully back away from the arrest of the wrong guy, before he was charged? We will never know. It is true that Stephen lost 'only' a few weeks of his freedom and several thousand dollars, compared to the arson victims who have lost much more than that. How does that make it justifiable to write such a letter? If it was to support the arson victims, all that needed to be said about the criminal prosecutions was "Your office will receive full cooperation from the City of Alameda." I am so very disappointed in the political grandstanding at a time of great loss. And the crimes have nothing to do with terrorism-- terrorism is "the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims." What political aims would those be?

Submitted by Laura (not verified) on Tue, Nov 4, 2014

Karen, This article is not about the homes and businesses destroyed by arson, it is about a young man who had been wrongly accused and jailed for weeks! So asking your same question/pertinent to the actual storyline, if that happened to your son wouldn't/shouldn't you have a different perspective? The "et al" residents have a right to express their frustrations here about how our municipal leaders handled the arrest publicly, and because it follows the context of the article. Your response was prompted by the election and you want your candidate to win. Well good for you, but meanwhile a young resident of our town had a feature story written about his horrific experience that involved our public safety staff and civic leaders. Let's please stop dismissing folks as wrong/Marie haters because they expect a different more civil approach to the public process in Alameda.

Submitted by Tom (not verified) on Tue, Nov 4, 2014

Correction: To my post......

"Unfortunately the mayor is not up for re-election this year....but hopefully Stewart Chen will not be returned to the dias..... Oddie shouldn't be there too!!!!"

Should have read: as corrected

"Unfortunately DAYSONG is not up for re-election this year....but hopefully Stewart Chen will not be returned to the dias..... Oddie shouldn't be there too!!!! "

My apologies on the misprint....

Tom

Submitted by Karen Bey (not verified) on Tue, Nov 4, 2014

But your process isn’t civil as you call it. It’s the same old “hate Marie – Action Alameda News” crap I’ve been hearing ever since the Mayor was elected.

And of course it’s about the victims that lost everything in the arson fires. It’s about everything that happened that night as a result of the fires, and the impact it had on everyone, most importantly the fire victims — but you want to make it about Marie Gilmore.

And to answer your question – if it were my son? I would be grateful he has been released, and with spiritual and community support I would move on!

Submitted by David (not verified) on Tue, Nov 4, 2014

Karen - I haven't heard anyone but you suggest these arson fires were 'domestic terrorism.' Terrorism is one of those "I know it when I see it..." things, but so far there's no evidence that the fires were set in pursuit of political aims, one of the contributing factors to "terrorism."

Submitted by Tom (not verified) on Tue, Nov 4, 2014

Is the only solution to expand the authotity of the police state so they can impose a midnight curfew on bicycles and arrest all curfew breakers as suspected terrorists??

Submitted by Jack brown (not verified) on Thu, Nov 6, 2014

Wow, depressing to read responses like "Bette," saying that you should be arrested for invoking your right to remain silent when police harass you.

Submitted by Kat H (not verified) on Thu, Nov 6, 2014

So glad to hear that the truth prevailed in this case! I often wondered why he was even charged; I mean, wouldn't part of the investigation be confirming his alibis for these fires? His coworkers from day 1 had said he was at Rooster's; and then we find out that he was shopping at Safeway and can be seen on the video...just glad everything worked out for him in the end and he has been cleared.

Submitted by Loves Alameda (not verified) on Sat, Dec 13, 2014

Did Marie ever apologize?