‘He sounded normal’: Missouri woman says she talked with suspect when he set California brush fires

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A Missouri man is in a Northern California jail, accused of setting more than a dozen fires over the weekend near the Bay Area.

Freddie Graham, 68, is facing 15 felony arson counts in Santa Clara County. Two of them are for setting fires during a state of emergency.

A woman who knows Graham said he was texting her at the time. She said in the time she spent with Graham she saw he was a troubled man. With the recent loss of his wife, and signs of depression, she said she wanted to help and was shocked by the news of the fires.

"It was crazy," said the woman, who did not want to be identified. "I just couldn't believe it."

She said she met Graham on a dating website back in July, according to WDAF.

"He was a fun guy," she said. "He was very nice. He teased me all the time. I liked that. He made me feel comfortable."

She said she quickly realized he was emotionally troubled and dealing with the loss of his wife, but she wanted to stay friends.

"He was just a very lonely guy," she said. "It touched me, so I didn't want to cut it off completely. So I kept a friendship with him."

A week ago, on Thursday, he told her he was heading to the Bay Area for his high school reunion in Milpitas. He texted and called her saying he was driving through the hills of Milpitas on Friday, and that he had a lot to tell her about his trip.

"He sounded normal," she said. "He sounded happy."

But what she didn't know was, in California, firefighters were dealing with a serious situation.

"Two of the larger planes that dropped the retardant and a helicopter," said a man who captured the emergency on his cellphone.

Cal Fire said over the weekend there were 13 fires in the Milpitas hills. The Reservoir Fire burned nearly 130 acres and caused nearly $50,000 in damages to the land.

Police tracked Graham to a rental car after a witness spotted him on the hill and was able to get photos. Court documents show they traced the car back to the Hertz rental company at the Mineta San Jose International Airport.

They found that the car was returned, but the same person came back and rented a second car. That car was rented to Freddie Graham of Lone Jack, Missouri.

Investigators said Graham was using lighters to ignite napkins from fast-food restaurants and then throw them out the window into the brush.

"It was crazy," she said. "I just couldn't believe it. I was like -- did I really just hear what I thought I heard?"

Back in Lone Jack, Graham is facing an arson charge from last year. Court documents show on Aug. 12, 2018, around 2 p.m., they got word of a fire at the intersection of W. Cannon and Bynum roads.

A tractor-trailer with bales of hay was ablaze in front of the old Perrywinkle building.

Investigators said they were able to connect Graham to the fire through surveillance video where they saw his car drive up to the hay and watch as an arm came out of the window and lit the hay on fire.

In the documents, officials say Graham was there while firefighters put the blaze out. When they talked to him about the fire, he said he went to lunch at the Lone Jack Cafe, came out and saw the fire.

When confronted with the video of the incident, he allegedly wrote in a statement, "I guess I done it."

The woman said she had no clue about the fires in California or Missouri until she woke up and saw it on the news Thursday morning.

She said if she could talk to him now, she would ask him why he did this.

"I would say why? Why would you do that, and why didn't you reach out for help?" she said. "There's always someone out there that cares. That's what I told him. I care."

The charges he's facing in California are more severe because the fires were set during wildfire season. California Gov.Gavin Newsom put the state of emergency into effect back in the spring ahead of the state's dry season.

Graham is being held in the Santa Clara County Jail on a $500,000 bond. He is expected back in court in California on Sept. 30.

He was scheduled to be in Jackson County Court on Wednesday, but was in custody in California at the time. There is no new court date set for his case in Missouri at this time.

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