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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cops: S.F., East Bay Car Fires are Not Connected -- and 62-Year-Old Homeless Woman Is *Still* Prime Suspect in City Blazes

Posted By on Wed, Nov 11, 2009 at 12:01 AM

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Other than disturbingly large swaths of the population of France, not so many people get a kick out of immolating cars. So when automobiles started going up like foreclosed factories in the East Bay, a natural thought was, "I wonder if this has something to do with all those car fires we had here in San Francisco?"

San Francisco police had that notion, too -- but Inspector Jeffrey Levin of the SFPD's arson department said he's been in close contact with the lead investigator at the Richmond Police Department, and they do not believe these instances are related. That's because East Bay authorities have a person of interest in their spate of car blazes -- and Levin still believes that 62-year-old homeless woman Fafa Chan is responsible for a series of summer car fires here in the city.

"I'm convinced that she did it," says Levin, who adds that they have "evidence" tying convicted arsonist Chan to at least one of the car fires, but would not disclose what it is.

We'd love to know what's got Levin so convinced. As SF Weekly wrote back when Chan was first arrested -- she was caught on tape setting structure fires and got around town via the bus -- the logistics of a 62-year-old woman without a car setting some of these fires seems far-fetched. The prime example is a quartet of arson fires set in the pre-dawn hours of July 28. Here's how we put it before:

At 4 a.m. a car went up like an old Christmas tree on 48th and Geary. A

scant 15 minutes later, two more cars went up at 10 Bertie Minor Lane

on the Geary corridor, nearly five miles away. If you're re-enacting

the chase scene in Bullitt, you

might be able to drive 4.6 miles and burn two cars in 15 minutes. But

even Lance Armstrong would have trouble doing that on a bike while

hauling kerosene, stacks of paper and other fire-starting elements.

Could a 61-year-old homeless lady careen down Geary on two wheels at 30


Hailing a cab at 48th and Geary at 4 a.m. while fleeing from a burning car is far-fetched, as is catching a bus; reports you couldn't get there on time in even an idealized world -- and it's a 33- to 41-minute schlep. 


matters, another car went up in flames that morning at 5:50 a.m. on

29th and Geary -- 3.5 miles west of Bertie Minor Lane.

Levin countered that fires may burn for quite some time before being reported. Fair enough. But he was talking about structure fires; car fires can only burn so long before someone notices a massive blaze outside the window (speaking from experience, a literal Christmas tree fire a good 70 feet from my window woke me up from the light and heat alone). So, let's say the arsonist lit the fire at 3:40 a.m. Sans an automobile, he or she would still need to take the 38 Geary at 3:52, which would deposit him or her a three-minute amble from 10 Bertie Minor Lane at 4:22 a.m. -- seven minutes after the second set of fires were reported, and not even factoring in the walk. Oh, did we mention it's an 11-minute walk from 48th and Geary to the nearest busstop at 45th and Balboa? 

So, in short, a bus-dependent arsonist would have to set a fire by 3:40 a.m., then catch a bus that's an 11-minute walk away, then arrive, at the earliest at 4:25 a.m. at 10 Bertie Minor Lane -- when both fires were reported already burning at 4:15.

Let's say we're not as convinced as Levin just yet. "She's very good," he says. "We have video of her getting off a bus and setting a fire. We followed her on the bus. ... She's our suspect in the arsons. We didn't find anything in the patter that led us to believe it's not one person."

Well, how about the little breakdown above? Levin considered it. "Maybe the Bertie Minor Lane fires are an anomaly," he conjectured. Perhaps someone else set those blazes.

Perhaps. In the meantime, Chan remains incarcerated awaiting trial for a pair of structural arson fires she's charged with. She remains uncharged for any of the dozen-plus car blazes that lit up this summer.

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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