SANTA CRUZ (CBS SF) — The Santa Cruz County Sheriff announced Thursday the arrest a Live Oak man who confessed to stealing a fire commander’s wallet while he fought the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.

Sheriff Jim Hart said investigators arrested 37-year-old Brian Lee Johnson on Wednesday night for the theft. Detectives assigned to the Sheriff’s office received a tip from an anonymous phone call that led to Johnson.

Brian Johnson (Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office)

An investigation team went to his house on a probation search and recovered merchandise that he bought with the stolen credit cards.

Hart said that while detectives took Johnson into custody, he expressed remorse for his actions.

“He admitted that he had used the credit cards and made the charges,” said Hart. “He also sat down and wrote a letter of apology to the fireman and he was then arrested for multiple felony charges.”

CZU LIGHTNING COMPLEX FIRES

Detectives arrested Johnson on multiple felony charges. Johnson’s charges include forgery, grand theft, credit card theft, possession of stolen property and a probation violation.

Hart said detectives turned around the case in less than 48 hours and are following up on another person that may have been involved in the original break-in.

Johnson reportedly stole the wallet overnight on Aug. 21 while the firefighter, who was not identified, was helping contain the massive blaze around Santa Cruz County. The firefighter had parked his pickup truck at Bonny Doon Fire Station while he worked overnight, and Johnson broke into it and stole personal items, including the fire commander’s wallet.

Surveillance images of suspect in theft of firefighter’s wallet. (Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office)

Later, Johnson drained the firefighter’s bank account.

“It’s unfortunate and sickening that one of our fire ground commanders in that area, while out taking care of business and directing firefighting crews, somebody entered his vehicle,” said Chief Brunton when the theft was originally announced.

Days later, surveillance video captured Johnson using one of the firefighter’s stolen credit cards at the Shell Gas Station and Safeway on 41st Avenue, in Capitola.

“Clearly he didn’t realize when he used the firefighter’s credit card of what he was getting into,” Hart said at the press conference.

Madison Knight, who identified herself as the suspect’s girlfriend, told KPIX the sheriff got it wrong. Knight said Johnson did not steal the wallet.

“The truth is that the fireman left his wallet on the counter of a gas station and the person who worked at the gas station is an acquaintance of Brian’s,” Knight said. “He took the wallet and then brought one of the cards and presented it to Brian and Brian made the mistake of using it.”

Knight said Johnson did not know whose credit card he had until he saw the surveillance pictures of himself on the news.

“He just was like, ‘I should just turn myself in now and get it over with,’” Knight said.

But Johnson chose not to follow through with surrendering.

“Fear,” Knight offered as a reason. “You know, nobody wants to go to jail. He’s got more consequences than the normal person. He’s going to be gone for years.”

Johnson is currently in the sheriff’s custody on a probation violation. Hart addressed concerns that Johnson would be released by saying “I’m sure the court is going to hold him.” It was not known why he was on probation as it was in another county, Hart said.

Hart said he didn’t know the total amount of what Johnson stole, though he said one purchase was for $1,400. Hart added that the total wasn’t what mattered.

“It doesn’t matter to me if it was $1,000 or $5,000. What matters is that someone who came to help us was victimized and that’s not right,” Hart said.

Johnson is expected to be arraigned Friday.

The firefighter’s bank reversed all charges and, if the bank hadn’t, several people from around the nation volunteered to pay the firefighter’s debts, Hart said.

“[The firefighter] said he’s good now and all he wants to do is get back on that line and fight fires.”

© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. KPIX correspondent Joe Vazquez contributed to this report

Comments