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D.A.: Defendant a `Serial Arsonist'

Published On: Jul 03 2013 02:00:30 PM CDT   Updated On: Jul 03 2013 04:24:00 PM CDT

A Banning man who allegedly ignited nine fires that burned a total 670 acres throughout Riverside and San Bernardino counties was charged today with multiple counts of arson and other allegations.

He plead not guilty to all charges and will appear in court again on July 17th. The defense asked he be ordered to take a psychiatric evaluation.

Steven Taylor Rutherford, 47, was arrested last week following a months-long investigation by Cal Fire.

Rutherford could face 80 years in prison if convicted of 13 counts of arson with sentence-enhancing allegations of using incendiary devices for the purpose of intentionally setting a fire and causing destruction of property.

The convicted felon, who is being held in lieu of $5 million bail at the Robert Presley Jail in downtown Riverside, was slated to make his initial court appearance this afternoon at the Riverside Hall of Justice.

``This individual is a serial arsonist who poses a dangerous risk to the citizens of Southern California,'' Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach said during a news briefing at the D.A.'s headquarters.

Zellerbach was joined by San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos, Riverside County Fire Department Chief John Hawkins, Cal Fire SoCal Regional Chief Dale Hutchinson and Deputy District Attorney Amy Zeta, who will be prosecuting the Rutherford case.

According to investigators, the defendant is responsible for nine fires in the San Gorgonio Pass and southern San Bernardino County going back to Sept. 6, 2011.

The most recent blaze, the ``Mills Fire,'' occurred June 28 in the area of Mills Creek and Newport roads on the outskirts of Mentone, scorching 534 acres and damaging four properties, including two homes.

``We have a zero tolerance for arson,'' Hawkins said. ``You can't measure the impact just in acres; there's destruction of homes, damage to other property, evacuations, people frightened of losing everything.''

According to Zellerbach, there were two injuries associated with the fires -- a member of an inmate hand crew who suffered minor burns and a firefighter who collapsed from heat exhaustion.

``Arsonists are cowards,'' Ramos said. ``They light and run. We take these cases very seriously.''

Zellerbach said that all but two of the blazes were set in Riverside County, so his office will handle the prosecution.

According to Zellerbach, Rutherford allegedly used a ``delayed ignition device'' to set the fires. The D.A. declined to elaborate on the type of device that was used. However, in drawing parallels to Rutherford's alleged acts, Zellerbach mentioned the Esperanza wildfire, a 41,000-acre blaze ignited in 2006 by Beaumont mechanic Raymond Lee Oyler, who now sits on California's Death Row for killing five U.S. Forest Service firefighters caught in a tidal flame while trying to defend a home near Twin Pines.

Oyler's preferred device was a cigarette strapped to woodstick matches.

``Arson is unique,'' Zellerbach said. ``Most crimes are targeted. Arson is indiscriminate: the fires can go anywhere and hurt or injure anyone. The cases can be very difficult to prove.''

He said law enforcement surveillance, security videotape captured outside businesses and GPS devices eventually placed on the defendant's vehicles helped build the case against Rutherford, who has a prior conviction for arson from 1989, for which he received a year in jail and three years probation, according to D.A.'s office.