Jurors this week found a 38-year-old Pittsburg man guilty of multiple arson charges in connection with a series of fires set in Antioch, Martinez, Pleasant Hill, Concord, Pittsburg, Walnut Creek, Lafayette, Brentwood and Benicia In the early months of 2017.
James Bishop III was found guilty on 31 of 33 counts of arson in connection with the case, the arsonist setting blazes with ever-increasing frequency in vehicles parked in proximity to local homes.
Investigators with the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District Fire Investigation Unit (FIU), noticed similarities in the methods used by the arsonist and quickly realized that a serial arsonist was to blame.
In late April, and into early May, the frequency of suspicious vehicle fires began to increase from one or two a week, to one every night, then to several separate vehicle fires on the same nights. Several of the fires spread from the parked vehicles to occupied residences including one with sleeping children in a bedroom just above where the arsonist struck. All of the fires occurred during hours of darkness, late at night or in the early morning hours.
Early investigation revealed partial images of a vehicle entering and or leaving the fire areas and, while all images seemed to depict the same vehicle, none captured a license plate. However, on May 12, 2017 at 2:17 a.m., video surveillance systems from a neighboring business and residences captured a partial license plate image on a vehicle departing the scene of a vehicle fire in Lafayette. With assistance of the Lafayette Police Department and the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office Crime lab, the image was enhanced, revealing the entire license plate number to investigators.
A task force was assembled to surveil the suspected arsonist and, on May 12, investigators located and followed the suspect’s car for almost four hours in and around the City of Benicia. Investigators were on foot in the area when another fire broke out – the suspect’s fleeing car located within minutes as it pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot at 1602 East 2nd in Benicia. The driver, James Bishop III, was detained and arrested.
During a jury trial which commenced in early November, 2018, Bishop was charged with 33 felony counts involving arson of an inhabited structure, arson of property, and possession and use of an accelerant. Of the more than 40 fires investigated in Antioch, Martinez, Pleasant Hill, Concord, Pittsburg, Walnut Creek, Lafayette, Brentwood and Benicia, 14 were used as the basis for the charges. On December 4, 2018 the jury reached a verdict and found Bishop guilty of 31 of 33 charged felony counts.
Sentencing is scheduled for late January 2019.