It was a first date out of a horror movie, authorities say.
Priscilla Castro, a 32-year-old from Vallejo, was headed to Vacaville on a Wednesday evening in August to meet Victor Serriteno, a 28-year-old she'd met through an online dating app.
But instead of romance, the interlude ended in multiple deaths and hundreds of thousands of fire-scorched acres, prosecutors say.
The person behind all the crimes, authorities say, is Serriteno, whom Solano County sheriff's deputies arrested again Wednesday on suspicion of arson and murder in connection with the Markley fire, which killed two people and merged into last year’s devastating LNU Lightning Complex fire. Serriteno was already in the county jail after authorities alleged he killed Castro.
“We believe Serriteno deliberately set the Markley fire in an attempt to conceal his crime,” Solano County Sheriff Tom Ferrara said at a news conference Wednesday.
The day after Castro and Serriteno’s planned meeting, ash began raining down on Vacaville. Dozens of residents were forced to evacuate their homes, and smoke and darkness blanketed the region for days.
“This was an unprecedented fire in scale,” said Jackson Harris, a spokesman for the Solano County Sheriff’s Department. “There was a lot of cleanup and recovery and resources that were given to it.”
The Markley fire killed two Solano County residents in their homes, according to the sheriff: Douglas Mai, 82, and Leon “James” Bone, 64. The blaze also fueled the LNU Lightning Complex fire, which the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said began on Aug. 17 and tore through Napa, Sonoma, Yolo, Lake and Solano counties, burning 363,220 acres before firefighters finally extinguished it Oct. 2.
The LNU Lightning Complex is the 11th most destructive fire in California history, according to Cal Fire. It raced across land parched by severe drought, killing six people and leaving 1,491 destroyed structures in its wake.
“Homes were destroyed, properties were destroyed, animals were killed and livestock was killed,” Vacaville Police Lt. Bryan Larsen said. “It's just a tragedy all around.”
Two days after Castro went missing, her family began to grow desperate. Her cellphone wasn’t picking up calls, and her social media hadn’t been updated in days. They called the Oakland Police Department. Hours later, Vacaville police received a report of an abandoned car — which turned out to be Castro's — on Bush Street, near a picturesque community park.
Detectives used cellphone records and analytic software on Sept. 2 to assist in a search for the missing woman. They found her charred remains in the Stebbins Cold Canyon Natural Reserve, a hilly spot around Lake Berryessa, roughly 20 miles north of Vacaville — the origin site of the Markley fire, investigators later discovered.
After several interviews as well as reviews of phone records and camera footage, Vacaville police arrested Serriteno on Sept. 11, and he was charged with murder in Castro's death.
When asked whether Serriteno went to the area to dispose of Castro’s body, Larsen said, “That seems likely.” Police are still determining the exact cause of Castro’s death and the nature of her relationship with Serriteno, Larsen said.
“We are still investigating the details of their connection, but at this time, we believe this was their first physical contact,” he said in a text message Thursday.
The Solano County district attorney's office added three additional charges against Serriteno on Wednesday: arson and two counts of murder for the two fire victims’ deaths. He is expected to be arraigned Friday.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.