Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano of California has repudiated a story by self-described "alt-right" website Breitbart that alleged that an undocumented immigrant had caused one of the deadliest wildfires in the Golden State's history. Giordano has also blasted the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency for accusing his jurisdiction of endangering residents by exercising so-called "sanctuary city" policies.
Throughout October, wildfires in California killed at least 42 people, devastated 7,000 properties and scorched over 200,000 acres of land across several counties. The overall damage is expected to exceed $1 billion, according to USA Today.
Sonoma County suffered some of the worst damage during the wildfires, with a single blaze killing 22 people, CBS News reports.
On Oct. 15, 29-year-old Jesus Fabian Gonzalez was arrested in Sonoma for starting a fire in a local park. A sheriff's deputy on the scene extinguished the fire and Gonzalez was detained in the Sonoma County Jail for felony arson, according to the Press Democrat.
On Oct. 17, Breitbart reported that Gonzalez, who is homeless, was arrested on suspicion of arson in relation to the wildfires that had devastated Northern California. The website also reported that ICE had issued a detainer request for Gonzalez and noted that Sonoma County was a self-declared sanctuary jurisdiction that would only turn over detained undocumented immigrants to ICE agents if they had been charged with a felony.
The Breitbart story circulated across far-right media and created the impression that Gonzalez was potentially responsible for the wildfires. One social media user tweeted out "The Santa Rosa fire was not caused by Climate. It was Arson by an illegal Alien, in a sanctuary County. ICE had a detainer for deportation."
On Oct. 17, Sheriff Giordano clarified the circumstances surrounding Gonzalez's arrest and stated that the Breitbart story was false.
"There is a story out there that he's the arsonist in these fires," Giordano said during a press conference. "That's not the case. There's no indication he's related to these fires at all ... I wanted to kill that speculation right now, so we didn't have things running too far out of control."
Giordano added that Gonzalez had told deputies that he started a small fire in the park to get warm.
Sonoma County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Sgt. Spencer Crum blasted Breitbart's reporting on the story.
"This is completely false, bad, wrong information that Breitbart started and is being put out into the public in a very strong way," Crum told BuzzFeed News.
"There is no indication Gonzalez is connected to the wildfires," Crum added. "None. Breitbart made that up themselves."
The spokesperson added that Breitbart had contacted the sheriff's department to only ask about Gonzalez's race and whether ICE had sought to detain him. The website had not asked the department whether Gonzalez had any connection to the wildfires.
On Oct. 18, ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan released a statement blasting Sonoma County for not turning over Gonzalez to immigration agents despite his previous arrests.
"Once again, a non-cooperative jurisdiction has left their community vulnerable to dangerous individuals and preventable crimes," Homan said.
On Oct. 19, Giordano responded to Homan's statement on the official Sonoma Sheriff Facebook page.
"The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a press release yesterday that was inaccurate, inflammatory, and damages the relationship we have with our community," Giordano wrote.
"Cal Fire is investigating the cause of the wildland fires that devastated our community. They have not released a cause. We don’t know if these fires were arson or caused by another source. There is no indication that Gonzalez had anything to do with these fires and it appears highly unlikely," the sheriff continued.
"Gonzalez has been in our jail approximately 8 times for minor misdemeanor offenses. We have notified ICE about his release in several of those arrests ... Despite ICE’s misleading statement, we will continue to protect and serve our community members with the strength and compassion they deserve," Giordano concluded.
Sources: Breitbart, BuzzFeed News, CBS News, The Press Democrat, Sonoma Sheriff/Facebook, USA Today / Featured Image: California National Guard/Flickr / Embedded Images: California National Guard/Flickr (2)