Flagstaff Arson Suspect Arrested in Area of Suspicious Mount Elden Fires

Federal authorities arrested an arson suspect in the same area where a string of suspicious fires worried residents of a neighborhood on Mount Elden in Flagstaff.

Court records filed on this week detail how Officer Charles Emerson of the U.S. Forest Service and another officer nabbed Shawn Patrick Farnham, 49, in the act of lighting a new fire.

Emerson had been on surveillance in the area, where as many as seven small wildfires were lit in early April.

Officials with the Flagstaff Fire Department and Coconino National Forest asked the public for help after several fires were started in the early morning of April 4 just off the Pipeline Trail on Mount Elden. None grew to more than a tenth of an acre before getting put out, but some came within 100 yards of homes. The next morning, the arsonist set two more fires in the same area.

Just before 10 p.m. on Thursday, Emerson, using night-vision goggles, spotted the man later identified as Farnham making his way up the same trail where the other fires had occurred. From about 35 feet away, Emerson saw Farnham squat down and strike a small lighter. Less than a minute later, "I observed a small flame rapidly growing. Farnham began to run away leaving the fire."

Farnham "showed no signs of stopping." Emerson and another officer pursued the man on foot, and when they caught up to him, he dropped a white Bic lighter from his hand, records state. Emerson then ran back to the fire to see if he could put it out but saw how it was spreading and jogged back to help the other officer.

Farnham told the officers he ran from the fire because he was "scared," but he admitted "he knew the fire was going to continue to grow."

He was charged with "causing timber, trees or grass to burn." Court records don't show how large that fire got before it was extinguished. Nor do records state whether Farnham is believed to have started all of the previous fires.

In any case, now that he's in federal detention, it'll be easier for Coconino County to find Farnham: He's MIA in a criminal case against him for suspected assault on a health-care worker. Farnham's got a short but noteworthy record that includes paying a fine of more than $900 for "jail destruction," and has been convicted in Phoenix Municipal Court of misdemeanor disorderly conduct (fighting), assault, and criminal damage.

Farnham has a hearing scheduled for 9 a.m. this morning in U.S. District Court in Flagstaff.

UPDATE 10:45 a.m. — Patrol Captain Jon Nelson of the Coconino National Forest tells New Times that he "can't talk about specifics of the case right now." 

Nelson adds that, in general, "people that intentionally start fires certainly threaten our community and national forest." 

He referred New Times to the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office, which didn't immediately return a call.

In the meantime, Farnham filed a court motion asserting his Fifth Amendment rights in the case.

UPDATE 1 p.m. — Cosme Lopez, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, says his agency is still working on the investigation with law enforcement.

He added that the number of arson fires being investigated in the Mount Elden case could be as high as 13.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.