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Yoga instructor charged with starting 8,500 acre wildfire is deemed unfit for trial


Jakob Rodgers

The Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The prosecution of a Palo Alto yoga instructor accused of starting the Fawn fire nearly two months ago went on indefinite hold Tuesday after a Shasta County Superior Court judge deemed the woman mentally unfit to stand trial.

Alexandra Souverneva, 31, will be evaluated for possible placement in a state mental health hospital after Judge Adam Ryan ruled she is mentally incompetent, according to Briona Haney, a spokeswoman for the Shasta County District Attorney’s Office. The ruling means Souverneva does not understand court proceedings and cannot adequately aid attorneys in her defense.

Last month, the judge ordered Souverneva be evaluated by two psychologists after her attorney, Gregg Cohen, raised doubts about her mental fitness.

Souverneva has pleaded not guilty to a felony arson charge and remains in a Shasta County jail on $175,000 bail. A call by this news organization to her attorney was not immediately returned.

The Fawn Fire ignited in mid-September in a deep quarry near Shasta Lake outside Redding. Over the next week and a half, the blaze destroyed 185 structures and injured three people while torching 8,578 acres of forest.

A quarry employee spotted Souverneva walking in the area near where the Fawn fire started, and authorities say she discarded two CO2 cartridges and a battery before disappearing, according to a criminal complaint.

Arson charges have been filed against Alexandra Souverneva for the Fawn fire in Shasta County. (Douglas County Sheriff’s Office/TNS)

Later that night, a firefighter found her dehydrated and calling for help at the edge of the blaze. More CO2 cartridges and a lighter were discovered in her fanny pack, authorities say.

At the time, she told authorities that she was hiking to Canada and had tried and failed to light a fire to boil puddle water, which she said contained bear urine.

A Cal Fire investigator told the Shasta County District Attorney there was a “high possibility” that Souverneva had also started a smaller vegetation fire in Shasta Lake City the night before the Fawn fire erupted, and warned that arsonists typically light multiple fires in a short period of time.

She also has since been charged with felony arson in Monterey County in connection with a fire on Aug. 8, according to Chris Knight, a Monterey County assistant district attorney.

Souverneva is among a handful of Bay Area residents suspected of starting wildfires this summer. They include a former Santa Clara University professor who authorities suspect started at least one fire in early August behind the Dixie fire lines that endangered firefighters in the area. Also, authorities suspect a Fremont woman found in a bikini and covered in scratches and soot started a different fire — this time near Echo Summit in El Dorado County.

As of Nov. 5, 136 people have been arrested by Cal Fire officers this year across the state on suspicion of arson, and nearly three-quarters of those cases involved wildland fires, according to Gianni Muschetto,

Souverneva’s arrest garnered national attention, and it ran counter to the typical profile of people arrested in arson cases. Federal Bureau of Investigation data shows that most serial arsonists are young white men under the age of 30. The vast majority of arsonists suffer from mental illness, a study by Walter Reed Army Medical Center researchers found. Up to 90% of those studied had a history of mental illness, and two-thirds of them had been abusing drugs or alcohol at the time they were setting fires.

A CalTech graduate with chemistry and biology degrees, Souverneva worked as a research associate at the biotech companies Gilead Sciences in Foster City and Nanosyn in Santa Clara. She is also a certified scuba instructor and has taught yoga classes in Palo Alto, where she graduated high school and tutored students in recent years.

She had several run-ins with the law in the last five years, including an arrest in Tehama County over the summer on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol and obstructing and resisting arrest. A week later, she was arrested in coastal Oregon on suspicion of criminal trespass.

Most recently, she had been released from a jail outside Redding after another allegation of resisting arrest. Her release came just hours before the Fawn fire ignited. If convicted of starting that fire, she could face up to nine years in prison.

But cases like Souverneva’s, in which defendants are determined to be mentally incompetent, are notoriously complicated. A defendant’s mental fitness can be fluid, meaning the someone treated and restored to competency can later lapse back into an incompetent state, said Malorie Street, a San Jose defense attorney with extensive experience in mental competency cases.

“That’s one of the challenges — there can be times where the person is cooperating, and then other times where they just can’t, they don’t have the capacity,” Street said.


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