Authorities have arrested a man they say stole the wallet of a firefighter who was battling a Bay Area wildfire and used the credit cards inside to rack up multiple fraudulent purchases, including one for $1,400.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart said the suspect, identified as 37-year-old Live Oak resident Brian Johnson, was arrested late Wednesday and confessed to his crime.
When questioned by a sheriff’s investigator, Hart said, Johnson “admitted that he had used the credit cards and made the charges. He also sat down and wrote a letter of apology to the fireman.”
Hart said the firefighter, whose name was not released, is an employee of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Officials said the wallet was stolen out of his vehicle last weekend while he was out battling the CZU Lightning Complex fire.
“That case really resonated with me because here we had somebody who came from completely out of the area, left their family, left their normal life to come here to Santa Cruz County to help our community get through the most catastrophic fire that we’ve seen in our history, and then somebody has the audacity to steal from this man,” Hart said during a Thursday news conference.
Hart said investigators received a tip from the public that led them to identify Johnson as a potential suspect. Authorities searched his home and found recently purchased merchandise, as well as clothing that the suspect had been seen wearing on surveillance video, the sheriff said.
Johnson was arrested on suspicion of multiple felony charges, including forgery, grand theft, credit card theft, possession of stolen property and a probation violation, Hart said. He is scheduled to be arraigned Friday, court records show.
Hart said Thursday that investigators were still working to determine whether any other people may have been involved.
To reassure Californians who have expressed interest in making donations to help cover the firefighter’s losses, Hart said all the fraudulent charges — the total amount of which was not immediately disclosed — have already been reversed.
The firefighter “wanted to extend his appreciation for all the support and the offers,” Hart said, “but he said he’s good now and all he wants to do is get up on that fire line and do his job.”
The CZU Lightning Complex has burned more than 82,000 acres in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties and was 26% contained as of Friday morning, according to Cal Fire.