Atwater janitor extinguishes blaze at City Hall, chases down arson suspect

Chris Carrera, an Atwater janitor, talks about the fire he put out at City Hall on Tuesday. After snuffing out the flames, he chased down the arson suspect, police say.
Chris Carrera, an Atwater janitor, talks about the fire he put out at City Hall on Tuesday. After snuffing out the flames, he chased down the arson suspect, police say. tmiller@mercedsunstar.com

An unlikely hero emerged Tuesday in Atwater when he quickly extinguished a fire burning at City Hall, then chased an arson suspect for half a mile and detained him for police.

Chris Carrera, 54, has been a part-time janitor for the city of Atwater for nine years, but Tuesday he also was a firefighter and police officer.

Atwater police said a man approached City Hall just before 10:30 a.m., doused the front of the building with gasoline and set it ablaze.

Carrera was in the hallway when he spotted the flames. He used a portable extinguisher to put the fire out.

“I saw him walking away, and I yelled out to see if maybe he’d seen who started it or something, but then he took off running and I thought, ‘Well, that looks pretty guilty,’ ” Carrera recalled. “I chased after him a couple blocks, down the street to Osborn Park. We both got tired and he gave up.”

The man, later identified by police as Guadalupe Hernandez-Ramirez, 45, told police “the cartel” made him set the fire, but refused to answer any other questions without a lawyer, City Manager Frank Pietro said, adding that Hernandez-Ramirez will receive a mental health evaluation.

Mostly I was just mad he made me run.

Chris Carrera, Atwater janitor who extinguished fire, then captured arson suspect

Hours before the fire was set, Carrera said, someone had thrown at least two rocks at City Hall’s front door, causing minor damage to the frame. It’s unclear whether there was any connection between the two incidents.

“It’s getting strange these days. I never seen anyone so mad they’d want to set a whole building on fire,” Carrera said.

Hernandez-Ramirez was booked into the Merced County jail on suspicion of arson of an inhabited dwelling, a felony, and a misdemeanor allegation of defacing public property. He remained in custody Tuesday afternoon with bail set at $105,000, according to booking records.

Hernandez-Ramirez was on probation in connection with a felony car theft conviction from earlier this year. He had been arrested multiple times over the past year, mostly on theft-related allegations, according to jail records.

The building at 750 Bellevue Road houses the city’s Police Department and dispatch center, City Council chambers and several other offices, including the city manager’s office, code enforcement and the engineering division.

Pietro said he was glad there were no injuries. “There’s really only minimal damage. We’ll probably be able to pressure wash it and repaint it,” Pietro said.

Police Chief Samuel Joseph said he was “grateful” that Carrera was there and acted quickly.

“He likely prevented serious damage to the building and very likely prevented the suspect from causing harm in other places,” Joseph said. “If he’d gotten away, who knows what he’d have done? I’m extremely grateful to Chris for taking action until our officers arrived to make the arrest.”

Carrera said that once he caught up to the man, he wondered if the confrontation would turn physical, but it didn’t, and he said it didn’t occur to him that he might be in any personal danger.

“I felt compelled to stop that guy because this is my building,” he said. “Mostly I was just mad he made me run.”

Rob Parsons: 209-385-2482