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Newcastle Man Charged in Sutter Creek Arson

By Stan Oklobdzija

Ryan Daniel Lewis

Lewis is also facing three counts of attempted arson for his alleged role in the attempted arson fires in Lincoln and Auburn. The indictment marks the first time Lewis, who was arrested on Feb. 8 was officially connected to the Sutter Creek fires.

Though FBI officials remain tight-lipped about what led them to connect Lewis, a statement by FBI Special Agent Angela Armstrong noted that Lewis was found with poison oak rashes on his right elbow and legs when questioned by FBI agents. Armstrong´s statement further noted that at the Sutter Creek site, “investigators discovered that the suspect(s) egressed through an area with a heavy growth of poison oak.”

The indictment, as well as the recently unsealed criminal complaint against Lewis, reveals many new facts about the string of attempted arson fires that started last December, culminating with the fires at the Pine Woods Apartment complex in Sutter Creek. Though the FBI will neither confirm nor deny it, the criminal complaint states that a citizen informant was interviewed on Feb. 8 in regard to a conversation he had with Lewis´ father on Jan. 13, one day after the attempted arson in Auburn. The informant stated that Greg Lewis, Ryan´s father, thought his son was involved in the Auburn incident because of Ryan´s radical political views. In addition, Lewis noticed his pickup truck was missing on the night of the attack and that there was red diesel in the truck´s bed the next day. The informant also stated that Greg confronted his son about his suspicions and was rebuked.

A later FBI interview with Greg confirmed the above statement, with the addition that when confronted, Ryan “reacted by ‘fluttering his eyes´ and by being non-responsive.” Greg also stated that because Greg was a general contractor, the family´s home had “all the components of the Auburn and Lincoln attempted arsons except for the red diesel, gasoline and flares,” according to the criminal complaint.

Agents also observed a skateboard which Greg indicated belonged to his son. Writings present on the skateboard included the phrase “crimethinc,” alluding to a Web site that espouses radical anarchist ideas. Greg also stated that on Feb. 7 and 8, the days following the Sutter Creek arson, he observed black plastic bags containing empty plastic milk jugs and empty plastic containers in the back of his son´s vehicle. Plastic milk jugs filled with flammable liquids were used to ignite several apartment buildings in the Sutter Creek arson.

Because of the number of devices and the time-frame of the attacks, “it is likely that more than one individual was involved at each location,” wrote Armstrong.

Though the FBI would neither confirm nor deny a search for additional suspects, Special Agent Karen Ernst indicated that “the investigation is still ongoing.”

The release of the criminal complaint marks the first time the FBI has officially acknowledged a confession in regard to the case.

“After initially denying any knowledge of the arson attempts, Ryan Lewis admitted to transporting to the Auburn arson scene components of the incendiary device knowing that the [materials] would be used to commit an arson,” the report read. He also admitted to stealing red diesel from construction sites in the Auburn area and to being in contact with the individuals who committed the attempted arsons prior to the incidents themselves. According to reports from the Associated Press, a search of Lewis´ residence turned up surveillance footage of the Auburn arson site and materials similar to used in all three arson attacks.

Information about the incendiary devices used in the arson attacks was also released for the first time. At the Lincoln attempted arson, the device used consisted of a white plastic five gallon bucket filled with a gasoline/diesel mixture. On top of the bucket was a road flare wired to a kitchen timer, set atop a 16” by 16” wooden scaffold. Igniters were taped to paper matches set against the striker end of the flares. The device was very similar in nature and construction to the one found at the Auburn site, according to Armstrong´s report. Both of these devices failed to ignite.

The Sutter Creek device involved plastic containers filled with gasoline placed inside large black plastic bags. Scouring pads were used as wicks for the devices. Sprinklers in the buildings extinguished six of the seven fires, while the SCFD extinguished the other blaze.

At 3:16 a.m. on Feb. 7, Sutter Creek Police and fire department officials responded to a fire alarm at the Pine Woods apartment complex on Bowers Drive. They arrived to find smoke coming from numerous buildings. According to Sutter Creek Police Chief Rob Duke, there were seven separate scenes, which firefighters were able to quickly get under control with the aid of the building´s sprinkler system. According to an FBI press release, seven incendiary devices were later discovered and thought responsible for the blaze.

Spray painted on a nearby metal storage unit was the slogan “We Will Win – ELF”, indicating that the arson fire could be the work of the Earth Liberation Front.

The group has earned the distinction of being the No. 1 domestic terror threat, according to a speech given to Congress by former FBI Director Louis Freeh.

The present incarnation of the Earth Liberation Front formed during the 1980s in Brighton, England by members of Earth First! that refused to abandon violence as a means of achieving their goals. The group became infamous in 1998 after causing nearly $12 million in property damage to a ski lodge in Vail, Colo., which threatened an endangered lynx habitat.

Since then, ELF has been implicated in numerous other incidents including the vandalism of several SUV dealerships in suburban Los Angeles and the destruction of a 206-unit condominium in San Diego over which a 12 foot banner was hung that read “If you build It, we will burn it.” Since 1996, it is estimated that the ELF has caused more than $100 million in damages, according to the FBI.

Lewis was denied release pending trial by a federal court judge on Friday. He is currently being held at the Sacramento County Jail.

Reprinted with kind permission from The Amador Ledger Dispatch