Firefighter turned arsonist sentenced for setting fires on federal land

A former firefighter turned arsonist who admitted to setting more than 30 fires in the summers of 2006 and 2007 in El Dorado and Amador Counties, including two on federal land, will spend the next five years in prison.

Benjamin Cunha, 33, of Placerville, who was sentenced Tuesday, also will pay $246,862 in restitution to Cal Fire.

In his plea agreement finalized Oct. 6 with the U.S. Attorney, Cunha admitted to setting one of the two fires he started on federal land, specifically the July 6, 2007 fire, which burned 80 acres of federal property.

Prosecutors requested the judge sentence Cunha to 7.5 years behind bars, because he acknowledged that he is a serial arsonist and “there is a high need to protect the community from Cunha.”

“As he admitted in his plea agreement, this defendant set a multitude of fires with a callous disregard for the danger to life and property that he was inflicting,” U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said in a statement.

Cunha started the fires, court records show, because he was bored, he wanted to boost his overtime pay with the fire department, and he sought to impress his peers.

“Cunha had no consideration for CAL FIRE fighters’ safety when he set the fires, placing them in grave danger during the fire suppression efforts,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Jill Snyder said in a statement.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and CAL FIRE assisted in the investigation while Assistant United States Attorneys William S. Wong and Audrey B. Hemesath prosecuted the case.

In a separate action, Cunha was sentenced by the state of California for the fires he set in El Dorado County. As part of his plea agreement, he admitted to the details of the 30 fires he set. He had disclosed to local law enforcement that because of his firefighter experience, he was able to build a time delay device to create “fires big enough that significant fire-fighting resources would be required to extinguish the fires.” 

Cunha was allowed leave the jail facility daily for work. He also was sentenced to 72 months of probation, which included GPS monitoring during the fire season through the summer of 2012.

He might have escaped without federal charges, but in July and August of 2013, there were two new fires in the El Dorado and Amador areas, which appeared to be the work of an arsonist.

“Law enforcement determined that at least one of the fires was started using a time-delay incendiary device similar to the time-delay incendiary devices Cunha had admitted to using in the 2007-2008 series of El Dorado/Amador county fires,” court records said.

Cunha was a primary suspect in the 2013 fires, but as part of the agreement will not be charged with setting them.

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