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With Evidence Burned, Clayton Fire Arson Suspect Could Be Difficult To Prosecute

LAKEPORT (CBS SF) – Dressed in a green and white striped prison jumpsuit, a former jailhouse firefighter accused of setting the massive Clayton Fire was ordered held on $5 million bail Wednesday.

About 25 percent of fires in the U.S. are arson and only about 10 percent of those are prosecuted. Investigators say the evidence is usually circumstantial and that they seldom get an eyewitness.

At the hearing, the community he's accused of burning got to see him for the first time.

"He acted like the perfect coward that he is," said Lake County rancher Joe Fernandez. "Theres just no other words to describe that man. You have to be a coward to do that."

Damin Pashilk told the judge he understood the charges against him, but did not enter a plea and then was hustled out of the jammed-packed courthouse.

He was ordered to be held on $5 million bail on 14 counts of arson in connection with 12 separate fires dating back to July 2015 and one count of attempted arson.

Pashilk was ordered to return to court on Sept. 7th to enter a plea.

After the court appearance, Pashilk's lawyer David Markham said he was told his client had passed out just before the proceedings for an unknown reason.

As far as the charges were concerned, "All I can say right now, I haven't received any reports so I don't know any details," said Markham. "All I can say is he is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and it's important that the public remember that during the course of these proceedings."

Richard Hinchcliff, Lake County Chief Deputy District Attorney said he has prosecuted serial arsonists before, but none that caused the amount of destruction the Clayton Fire had caused.

The 40-year-old former San Francisco resident's alleged role in the fire -- which was only 50 percent contained Wednesday evening and has destroyed more than 175 structures -- has enraged the local residents, many who have lost their homes in the blaze.

• PHOTOS: Clayton Fire Burns Lake County

Investigators say the Jerusalem Fire in August last year may be another one of the fires connected to Pashilk.

"I can't release if there were multiple ignitions of a single fire, but it is safe to say he is responsible for starting several fires here in Lake County over the last year or two," said Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin at the time of Pashilk's arrest.

Most specifics about the investigation aren't being released to protect the integrity of the investigation. But KPIX 5 confirmed Cal Fire has been watching Pashilk for a year. It wasn't until the Clayton Fire investigators had enough to make the arrest on Monday.

"You get one shot at this. If you take that shot too soon, you jeopardize bringing someone to justice who truly needs to be brought to justice," Martin said Wednesday.

Ironically, Pashilk learned about wildland fires from the state itself. When serving five years for drugs and firearms charges, the state trained him as an inmate firefighter. He spent time on the fire lines in Trinity County.

Since his release, records show he has had six parole violations.

"A lot of details in this investigation are being withheld," said Martin. "And the reason for that is we want to make sure we have a good prosecution and that the criminal justice system takes its place."

The community is already lashing out against him, calling for the maximum penalty -- life in prison -- if he gets convicted.

"I wish I was in jail with him, so he can learn the pain his caused," said Fernandez. "Its horrifying what he's done to other people."

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