The arson suspect was nineteen years old and had short black hair, brown-yellow eyes, and a wide, plump face. He was sitting in the corner stall of the visiting room of the Imperial County jail in El Centro, a hundred miles east of San Diego. The air in the room was fresh from the swamp cooler outside, which was seldom overwhelmed in the wintertime. It was a Sunday morning in January, 1977 and the weather was clear and still. Driving down the rock-pile mountain from the west, I had seen the Chocolate Mountains across the valley, and had felt as though I could draw my finger on the line where the desert ended and the fields began, tilting toward the Salton Sea from the overflowing rims of the All-American Canal.
The suspect was at a desk behind a sheet of glass that rose to the ceiling. We spoke through telephone receivers. "Are you Angel Magallanez?"
"Yes," he said.
"Did I pronounce your name correctly?"
"Don't matter," he replied, and gave the Spanish pronunciation and then the English. Born in Mexicali, he was technically a Mexican, but had been raised by relatives in Holtville, a farm town east of El Centro, and his English was that of any Californian.
He drove a Ford pickup with a CB radio and oversize blackwall tires; his wardrobe included a rugby shirt, a marijuana leaf belt buckle, and his high school graduation ring. His large front teeth and an occasional squint made him look like Theodore Cleaver in Leave It to Beaver.
When I told him who I was, he said, "How'd you know I was here?"
"There was a story in the San Diego Union about your arrest, and also about the fires."
"Really? What did it say?"
I recited what I could remember of the article, which was written by Bill Parry and which said: "The Imperial County sheriff's office said it has arrested a suspect in connection with the worst series of hay fires in the history of the Imperial Valley.... Sheriff's Sgt. John Lorenz said an estimated $300,000 worth of hay was destroyed in a series of 24 fires in November. The fires occurred within a five-mile radius of Holtville. The blazes destroyed about 3600 tons of hay, most of which was insured...
"The arsonist attempted to set 31 hay stacks afire the first night, and 17 of them burned. Night patrols of the Sheriff's Department immediately were expanded and aircraft and electronic equipment were used in an effort to catch the arsonist in the act. At the same time, farmers began guarding their haystacks at night and some carried rifles while patrolling fields.
"Investigators from the Imperial County Fire Department, Sheriff's Department, and police from cities all over the 2700 square-mile valley joined the search for evidence or a motive that would lead them to the arsonist. However, they were unsuccessful until an attempt was made to burn the Meloland Store in Holtville, operated by the suspect's mother, Maria Magallanez.
"Luckily, the store didn't catch and burn," Lorenz said yesterday. "We had handled her son as a juvenile so we interrogated him and he freely told us he had set the fires at his mother's store because he disliked her so much," Lorenz said. "Then he copped out to all the fires and told us where he had started the fires and how he had started the fires."
"The woman told investigators she had adopted Magallanez, whose given name was Angel Arrellano Gutierrez....
"Magallanez was given a preliminary hearing Tuesday [December 7, 1976] before Municipal Judge Harold Chaille, in El Centro, who reduced the suspect's bail from $100,000 to $50,000."
That may seem like a lot of money for someone suspected of burning Sudan grass and alfalfa (in face, bail initially was set at $500,000), but the number of fires, their frequency, and the adroitness with which the arsonist eluded the sheriff department's helicopter, the infrared scopes, the patrols disguised as joyriders and as hitchhikers, the farmers armed in their fields, and the $1000 offer of reward for information leading to the arsonist's arrest and conviction - these contributed to a peculiar state of mind in the valley, where farmers are used to tolerating a fire or two every season, set off by kids.
"At first we thought all the fires was union-connected," said Clem Miller, one of the farmers who stayed in his field at night with a rifle. "A bunch of farmers had just gone up to Los Angeles to rally for Proposition 14, which the Chavez people were not too crazy about, and when the fires started coming all at once, you were taking a hell of a chance just stopping your car and taking a piss."
The fires left only a few unburned matchbooks as evidence. Once hay has been cut and dried in windrows, it is baled in the field and the bales stacked two abreast and fifteen feet high by the side of the road. Some of the stacks are 200 yards long, or about the size of a freight train. The burned stacks left only a long track of ash and twisted baling wire. Nothing indicated who might have set the fires.
"So tell me how you came to be arrested," I said through the telephone.
"I don't know. I guess someone told Mike Singh [a sheriff's lieutenant] that I set the fire at my mom's store but I didn't; I was home in bed and you can ask her."
"Do you work at the store?"
"Yeah, well, I'm the only man at home. My little brother's only thirteen and still in school and my mom's not married. There's four kids home altogether and my mom needs me 'cause I'm the oldest. So I give thirty, forty dollars a week to help out."
"But who told Mike Singh that you set your mother's store on fire?"