An arsonist is finally identified and captured.

A large house on fire very badly engulfed in flames

The arsonist taped the fire

A video tape under a camouflage jacket by the road

The videotape was found by the road

CASE DETAILS

On August 15, 1989, an overheated car pulled to the side of a road in Stockton, California. The owner was a man we’ll call Joseph Villa. Joseph inspected the damage while his wife and son looked on. He decided that he and his son should walk to the nearest phone. On the way, they noticed a camouflage jacket on the ground. Inside a pocket was an unlabeled videotape.

Two police officers watching the arsonist's tape on a small television

They looked for clues to his identity

Joseph and his son decided to take the video home and watch it. The video was of a house on fire. The family immediately turned it over to police, who were convinced that the person holding the camera had also set the fire. Captain Frank Curry of the California Department of Forestry assumed the disturbing voice heard on the tape belonged to the arsonist:

“I’ve never run across anything as eerie as this tape. It frightened me. As a matter of fact, I thought about it that night when I went to bed.”

Captain Curry and investigators studied the videotape in order to pinpoint the location of the fire:

“When we listened to the tape, it was hard to understand certain words that this person was saying. So we sat down and we actually went through this tape, I mean hundreds of times and came up with a script. He says, I told you I’d do it Omar. Is Omar the property owner? It’s a revenge type burn. Is Omar the construction person that maybe hired this person and fired him and made that a revenge motive for the fire? We really didn’t know who Omar is.”

An investigator kneeling down next to a small ceramic skull left at the scene

Was the arsonist a Satan worshiper?

A county arson investigator accompanied Joseph Villa’s brother to the spot where the tape had been discovered. Amazingly, the jacket was still there. In it they found a wooden pestle, the kind used to grind herbs for satanic rituals. Nearby, they also found a glove that matched the jacket and a ceramic skull. According to Captain Curry, the skull suggested Satanism, as did the words of the arsonist:

“Those are basically the clues, all we have on the video and that’s why we need to find out where this went down. Where is this home? As we viewed the tape, we realized that there was fire suppression equipment that had responded to the incident. And we thought if we can enhance the tape, bring those shots in a little bit closer to us, we may be able to get a door mark or a house number or maybe even a fire department insignia on the door.”

Left: Fire Department video of house on fire, Right: Arsonist's video of house on fire

The tapes matched

Despite a frame-by-frame analysis, the photographic enhancements did not reveal any new details. Investigators were still unable to match the tape with any reported fires in the state of California. The tape was found by the Villa family just a few yards from Interstate 205, near Stockton. Interstate 205 feeds into several major highways. According to Dough Allen, a law enforcement coordinator for the California Department of Forestry, the fire could have happened anywhere in the U.S.:

“I think the person who made this videotape and is responsible for the fire will, without a doubt in my mind, continue to set fires. And the person needs to be apprehended and stopped before his fires become more destructive. And there’s a few of these type of serial arsonists that will move into another criminal area.”

The house appeared to be a one-story ranch with two chimneys. There is another house on the left side of the picture, partly hidden by a white trailer. The trailer indicated that the burning house was possibly under construction.

Update:

Within minutes of our broadcast, several viewers called and identified the house seen burning on the videotape. It was located in Redwood City, California, 80 miles west of Stockton. The house that was destroyed was under construction at the time. Today it has been rebuilt. Surprisingly, on the night of the blaze, Woodside Fire Captain John Dellinges also videotaped the fire:

“While I was setting up the command post, directing companies to extinguish the fire, I had set up my video camera to film the fire for training and investigation purposes.”

By comparing Captain Dellinges’ tape with the video shot by the arsonist, investigators were able to confirm that this was definitely the fire’s location. According to Detective Mark Pollo of the Redwood City Police, authorities had two suspects:

“Some of the calls received led us to a 17-year-old Woodside youth. We interviewed that youth. Through that interview, it led us to a 19-year-old Redwood City youth who was arrested and interviewed and subsequently admitted to burning the house, taking the video and was the one who talked on the videotape.”

Both suspects were underage when they set the fire and were tried as minors. One served time at juvenile hall. The other was committed to a state mental hospital.


Watch this case now on Amazon Prime in season three with Robert Stack and in season four with Dennis Farina. Also available on YouTube with Dennis Farina. Various seasons available now on Hulu.

36 Comments

  1. Tyler O'Neill

    Hey man, do you mind if I ask how you knew Frank? And do you recall if that was his real first name, or a nickname/middle name/etc. that he went by?

    Reply

  2. Tyler O'Neill

    Hey Chris, like yourself this case got its claws in me and I did a fair bit of research a couple years ago but hit a dead end (you can see one of my comments from that time lower on this thread). If you’d be comfortable sharing the photo with me, I’d be really grateful– – and won’t share it if those are your wishes.

    Reply

  3. Tyler O'Neill

    Not necessarily. It easily could have been a nickname or his middle name. If he hated his father as much as he seemed to, going by a name other than the one given to him could have been a small act of rebellion.

    Reply

  4. Amigo Jack

    I knew Frank. He would drink blood. HATED his father. Loved Fires.

    Reply

  5. Brandon

    Chris, can I see the pic? Very disturbing.

    Reply

  6. Chris

    After obsessing over this case for almost 30 years, and spending many hours online, I think I found a pic of the actual arsonist. Would probably be willing to share it in a private message with anyone else obsessing over this case. Don’t really want it to go public or viral

    Reply

  7. Johnny Diamond

    I remember the creepy voice in the video and a year or so later it was solved. Never gave the name of the arsonist because he was a minor. Given the serious nature of his crimes he likely did not end up amounting to much.

    Reply

  8. Lee A Harding

    A Reddit thread connection to hit and run says it was John Hammon.

    Reply

  9. Lee A Harding

    Wow I am so glad I got on this thread to see the loose ends solved! I am sorry to hear about him walking to death on the freeway in later years. Satanism equals bad idea

    Reply

  10. Tony

    Not to downplay how dangerous the arsonist was but I have to admit I found the video more humorous than creepy. The voice is obviously really young and sounds like some idiot kid who got way into heavy metal and thought a house going up in a huge blaze was cool. If I’d found the tape I’m not even sure if I’d assume right away that the voice actually started the fire because I could so easily imagine some ‘Beavis & Butthead’ type at the time coming across the fire and running to get the camera and film it while making all kinds of “awesome” chants and whatnot.

    Reply

  11. Tyler O'Neill

    Dang, That definitely could be him.
    We know that he was a minor (17) on the date of the fire, August 15, 1988. And this report* would indicate that he was 19 by September 29,1990. That would place his birthdate as somewhere between 8/16/71 and 9/28/71.

    That article is from 1/13/17 and identifies the victim as a 45-year-old man, which lines up. Doesn’t seem like his name was reported anywhere though.

    *https://www.upi.com/Archives/1990/09/28/Suspected-videotape-arsonists-arrested/9808654494400/

    *https://www.upi.com/Archives/1990/09/28/Suspected-videotape-arsonists-arrested/9808654494400/

    Reply

  12. JoshuaD

  13. Mike Lawlor

    I was there at the Fire, I worked at Woodside Fire Dept. I also sat next to Captain John Dellinges at the Fire House when the tape appeared on Unsolved Mysteries. captain Dellinges quickly got up and said that is our fire. We laughed and said yopur nuts. Dellinges went into his car and got ot the video of the fire he shot that night. It showed it was a 2 story house not a 1 story. Captain Dellinges was the Acting Chief that night and set up command on top of the hill. The arsonist was below hi filming what appeared to be aone sory house under construction. The Hydrant closer to the house was dead. The Contractors or someone had shut it down. Redwood City was next in and they laidfrom the next closest hydrant. I pulled a 1 3/4, should have pulled a 2 1/2. The engineer opened up a deck gun. Captain Dellinges is 100% responsible for solving the case.
    Captain Mike Lawlor
    Retired – Woodside Fire….

    Reply

  14. Marie

    Creepy case

    Reply

  15. Marie

    The Cold Case Files episode had the detailed information about the case. Apparently they got a lead on a suspect after his own home garage went up in flames. In the garage they found animal parts, sacrificial items, large saws and blades and headless dummies. Lots of home videos were found of other fires he set and of the suspect himself (and his friends) doing bizarre and evil things. One video, the suspect (they blurred his eyes) was calling a homemade dummy “father” and then repeatedly stabbed him and beheaded him. Several vids depicted the youth dressed as a vampire and praising Satan and evil and stuff. Very troubled kid. Needless to say, it was very disturbing.

    Reply

  16. Chris

    Would like to know more about Frank and Omar!!

    Reply

  17. Christopher Aubert

    @Renee…can you please email me as I have a few questions? RWC resident too.
    Thank you!!

    [email protected]

    Reply

  18. Joseph

    Does anyone know the crosstreets of the house? I know it happened in the Emerald Hills area. I don’t live very far from Redwood City.

    Reply

  19. Renee

    I knew the narrator. He died recently… he walked on to the freeway and was hit by a car. Few people in this world legit scare me. He did.

    Reply

  20. Anonymous

    This episode gave me nightmares as a kid

    Reply

  21. Sllanger

    The episode of Cold Case Files (Se 1 Ep 14) Reconstructing Murder/Fire Flicks, is available for everyone “on demand” with Comcast Cable TV as of the beginning of this month (May 2017). Just look up Cold Case Files (Just be sure you pick the “old” Cold Case Files series that’s listed as starting in the early 2000s and not the new one from this year.) and select it. Its free and it will only probably be a available for limited time. So this is your chance to see the episode and its complete summary of the arsons + all the additional videos the perpetrators made, so act quickly. I still cant find but only one YouTube video clip of the case from some other show on the entire internet right now, so this looks like its gonna be our best and only chance to see the Cold Case episode and a bunch of of the crazy home movies made by the arsonists. Enjoy, it rarely gets much more vintage 1980’s “satanic panic” than this.

    Reply

  22. Sllanger

    I can add a little more info about this from some of the other shows I’ve seen this featured on. My memories of it are admittedly a little old but are still pretty clear. From doing a little googling I’ve found out that this story was described with more detail and a complete aftermath on a show called Cold Case Files (Se 1 Ep 14) Reconstructing Murder/Fire Flicks. It showed the first “Omar” video plus a bunch of other crazy/violent and “horror themed” homemade movies the narrator and his pals made. I swear I’ve seen this on another show like Dateline or 20/20 though and it showed the other videos + more importantly gave a motive for the arson. On the show I saw it claimed the narrator and his buds were pissed a developer had started building houses on their favorite woodland playground, where they liked to tape their videos, play role playing games (LARPing. Look it up.) and worship Satan. I’m not quite sure if I’m confusing it with the Cold Case episode or some other show though because its been so long since I’ve seen it and I cant find it or any of the other vids online. I cant find anything about it ever being on Dateline or 20/20 either. For the record, the narrator (who also enjoyed killing animals) ended up in the funny farm after he got busted and his other friend had to kick it for awhile in juvenile hall. No names were released because they were all juveniles when they committed the arsons and aside from the vids that’s as much as the public has ever gotten to see or hear of them. I can only find one YouTube clip of the Omar video from some other show and a cop at the end of it said the narrator was “difficult to interview because he was so withdrawn” and cried during his interrogation as well as stating the obvious by claiming the guy was “extremely disturbed”.

    Reply

    • Sllanger

      I’ve misquoted the video in my previous post. The cop said the kid was “troubled” not “extremely disturbed” and said he was “difficult to interview because he was so quiet and withdrawn”, not just withdrawn.

      Reply

  23. Bernard Short

    I’am watching this episode right now which features a house under construction on fire plus featuring someone talking in the background I mean someone who’s really sick who’d started the fire until years later when Police later arrested a couple of teenage boys who were then the one’s that started the fire to that house because I’ve learned that one of these boys are serving a few years at a state Mental Hospital because if it wasn’t for the jacket & video found along the road chances are that this arson case wouldn’t be solved.

    Reply

  24. kirbivore

    This was on the 1990/91 season premier. I had just started 8th grade. I taped this episode on VHS. When my friends found out I had a tape of this episode they all wanted to see it. It spent the entire school year traveling around my 8th grade classmates. Remember this was the days before streaming.

    Reply

  25. Me

    I know who Omar is. I knew him he was Frank’s friend. Frank was the guy talking. Omar was there, he just didn’t speak while the video was recording. Frank didn’t care he was super crazy.

    I know this because I am related to Omar. I won’t say his last name.

    Reply

    • Armando

      This is the likely the stupidest thing I’ve ever posted anywhere, but I feel like I needed to share this with you.

      When the story aired, I was five or six. Since I had a baseball card collection, I immediately thought that the “Omar” referenced in the video was Omar Vizquel, then a shortstop for the Seattle Mariners.

      Having said that, I hope that Omar was able to move on with his life and do something productive.

      Reply

    • Will the real frank please stand up

      Hey can I reach out to u on a platform that allows private messages? I know omar’s real identity too, I’m not related to him tho. Would like too know more about frank.

      Reply

    • Mike

      How about Frank’s last name? I heard he dies

      Reply

  26. Tom

    I’ve seen different shows on this arson case but was it ever divulged or reported as to how the tape got to Stockton? Thanks

    Reply

  27. Jon

    So who was Omar? Was it the 17 year old Woodside youth?

    Reply