Officials Thursday charged a man with lighting fires at apartment complexes in Irvine and Fullerton so he could distract residents and break into their homes.
Prosecutors say that after he started the blazes, Jose Baca Jr., 36, would run through the buildings yelling that there was a fire. He would then allegedly break into the homes and steal items like wallets and jewelry.
Fullerton police arrested Baca, of Santa Ana, Tuesday on suspicion that he lit a fire in the carport of an apartment complex in Fullerton two days earlier.
He had stolen property from victims' homes and more than 10 grams of methamphetamine in his possession when police took him into custody at a Brea hotel room, prosecutors and police said.
Irvine police believe Baca is responsible for setting two fires in Irvine, including one on Jan. 9 at the AXIS 2300 Luxury Apartments on Dupont Drive at VonKarman Avenue
When the fire was extinguished, a male tenant returned to his apartment for his car keys and he found a man stealing valuables, police said. The suspect allegedly pepper-sprayed the resident and fled.
When a fire coupled with burglaries occurred in Fullerton last weekend, the two departments began working together, Irvine police Lt. Julia Engen said.
The fire in Fullerton spread to multiple buildings and caused more than $1 million in damage, prosecutors allege. Police said it took 30 engine companies to put down the four-alarm blaze.
The Irvine fire caused much less damage. Firefighters extinguished it quickly before it spread past the leasing office, police said.
Irvine police had been unable to identify a suspect, but Fullerton police fingered Baca based on a detailed description and motorcycle license plate number given to them by witnesses.
Baca's profile matched the pieces of information Irvine had been able to gather, Engen said.
"We knew we needed to chat with that guy based on the investigation," she added.
Police believe Baca set another fire in Irvine on Dec. 12 at apartments on Alton Parkway and Irvine Center Drive. That fire, Engen said, was lit in a small storage unit outside an apartment but was extinguished without causing any evacuations.
The Orange County's district attorney's office charged Baca with four felony counts of first-degree residential burglary, three felony counts of arson of another's property, two felony counts of arson of an inhabited property, one felony count each of grand theft, possession for sale of a controlled substance, and receiving stolen property, with one sentencing enhancement for arson burning multiple structures.
He faces up to 18 years in state prison if convicted. Prosecutors will request he be held on $1-million bail.
"This was a great collaborative effort between Fullerton and Irvine PD, as well as the community," Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes said in a prepared statement. "Working in partnership with very alert witnesses allowed us to get this dangerous man off the street."
Fullerton and Irvine police are investigating any other suspicious fires to see if they're connected to Baca.