Friends question arrest of arson suspect

Friends question arrest of arson suspect

Michele Ellson
Park Street fires

Friends of one of the suspects in a string of early-morning fires Sunday are expressing disbelief he was involved in starting them.

Police announced Monday that they had arrested Stephen Michael Petersen, 27, of Alameda and Andrew Resto Gutierrez, 22, in connection with seven fires set at homes and businesses early Sunday, which caused an estimated $3 million in damage. No one was injured as a result of the fires.

The pair were scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday and were being held in Santa Rita Jail in lieu of bail.

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.

James Bulman said he was working the soundboard at Rooster’s Roadhouse with Petersen until 1:45 a.m. Sunday and that Petersen typically walked home to an apartment in the Park Street area.

“I was right there with him, working. We couldn’t have had the bands playing without him doing sound,” Bulman said.

Bulman, who said he’s known Petersen for 10 years, said his friend had participated in protests, but that he would usually discuss his plans before the fact. Bulman, who said he’s close to Petersen, said he’s never met Gutierrez.

“I would pretty much put my life on it: He didn’t do anything,” Bulman said of Petersen.

Petersen’s friends have spoken out to a number of Bay Area media outlets regarding their belief in his innocence. Justin Vanegas told the San Francisco Chronicle that Petersen got off his Rooster’s shift at 1:30 a.m. and walked home.

Rolleri said police “have really good reason to doubt” that the timeline friends established for Petersen’s whereabouts are accurate but declined to divulge additional details, saying the department is still doing work on the case.

He told KTVU, which also obtained surveillance video that police said put Gutierrez at the scene of one of the fires, that police and firefighters saw Petersen at the scene of several fires.

Sunday’s fires began at 12:56 a.m. in a dumpster outside a building on the 1300 block of Regent Street. Forty-three minutes later, a second blaze began outside a home on the 1100 block of Regent Street, displacing residents and causing $100,000 worth of damage to the rear of the home.

A third fire, to a converted Victorian on the 2200 block of San Antonio Avenue, displaced residents and caused $300,000 worth of damage. Petersen was arrested at 2:30 a.m., on the 2100 block of San Jose Avenue, eight minutes after the third fire was called in.

Four fires were called in after Petersen was arrested, including a three-alarm fire on the 1600 block of Park Street that caused $2.6 million worth of damage to the building and the businesses in it. Gutierrez was arrested at 4:11 a.m., a half hour before the final fire was called in.

Park Street businesses have begun discussions about a potential fundraiser to support the business owners affected by the fires.

In a letter to District Attorney Nancy O’Malley released to the media Tuesday, Mayor Marie Gilmore asked that the suspects be charged with the crimes they were arrested for and that if convicted, they receive the maximum punishment allowed by law.