The following is a press release issued by the Mendocino County District Attorney:
Despite the recent rains, calendar year 2021’s record number of arson prosecutions which predate the recent precipitation are still public safety concerns and are continuing to move through Mendocino County’s local criminal justice system.
To that end, defendant Jennifer Leeann Smith, age 39, last of Fort Bragg, plead guilty Wednesday afternoon to arson of forest land, a felony violation of California Penal Code section 451(c), and also stipulated to a 48-month sentence in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
As background, during the early evening hours of August 19, 2021, the Willits Police Department, Little Lake Fire Department, and the Brooktrails Fire Department each responded to a fire started and burning behind the Burger King restaurant and very close to the Baechtel Creek Medical Clinic in south Willits.
As the fire fighters actively worked to contain the fire before it could grow and spread out of control, arson investigators and patrol officers immediately recognized that this was a fire likely intentionally set by an arsonist.
Aided by dynamite surveillance footage, the investigation quickly uncovered that defendant Smith, walking in the dry creek bed east of the restaurant, walked up out of the creek bed near the drive through, bent over and lit dry grass afire, and then hurriedly walked away.
When located blocks away from the fire and confronted by law enforcement, the defendant denied intentionally setting the fire, despite what the security camera footage showed.
Claiming her one and only cigarette lighter did not work, the defendant said she started a small fire by accident while trying to light a new cigarette with the burning remains of an earlier cigarette that she was smoking. She insisted that she stomped out the small fire she had started and was not responsible for any other fire.
However, contrary to her self-serving statements, the defendant was searched and found to be in possession of a working cigarette lighter, which is believed to be the instrument she used to start the fire. The surveillance footage likewise showed, contrary to her statement, that the defendant made no effort to stomp out the fire after she had set the dry grass on fire, nor did she attempt to summons help.
Following the defendant’s change of plea, her case was referred to the Mendocino County Adult Probation Department to prepare the background information and paperwork needed by the CDCR to receive, classify, and assign the defendant to a state penal facility.
The defendant remains in custody pending a sentencing hearing now calendared for December 9th, 2021 at 9 o’clock in the morning in Department A of the downtown courthouse in Ukiah.
Today’s conviction constitutes a Strike conviction, within the meaning of the voter-modified Three Strikes law, for future prosecution purposes.
The defendant will also be required to register as an arson offender for life with any local law enforcement agency wherever she eventually resides when paroled from state prison in approximately 24 months, assuming she earns all the good time/work time credits that she can, as authorized by the Legislature.
Any person interested in this case is welcome to attend the December 9th hearing. However, please be aware that masks are still required in and about the courtrooms.
The prosecutor handling this matter is Assistant District Attorney Dale P. Trigg.
Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Patrick Pekin accepted the defendant’s change of plea and approved the stipulated 48-month state prison sentence Wednesday afternoon.