Man charged with arson in Walmart fire
Last updated 9/11/2023 at 12:51pm
Twice last weekend, police had eyes on Jimmy Guillen, a person of interest now tied to last Sunday's Walmart fire.
Twice, they let him go.
In both cases, officers did the right thing, Police Chief Roy Rice said.
"We didn't have anything to hold him on. If we knew then what we know right now ... they would have placed him under arrest," Rice said.
Going into this weekend. police were actively searching for the 59-year-old California man believed to be transient.
"I think he's still in the area," Rice said. "Why assume he's left? Why can't we assume he's here?"
On Saturday morning, police charged Guillen with arson, aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence, and felon in possession of a destructive device. On Thursday, he was charged with attempt to commit breaking and entering at Lowes Home Improvement.
Investigators on Saturday did not immediately say what specifically led to the arson charge. "We are not prepared to release any conclusions or evidence from this investigation," a police press release stated Saturday morning.
Guillen seen with fire-starting equipment
Hours before and after last Sunday's fire, Guillen was seen outside Walmart and across the street at Lowes with fire-starting equipment, court and police records show.
Police first encountered Guillen near a fire that broke out behind Walmart on the afternoon of Sept. 2, less than 12 hours before last Sunday's fire. Authorities say Guillen also was seen on video trying to start plants on fire at Lowes just 21 minutes before the Sunday morning fire that collapsed Walmart's roof.
Guillen was not charged in connection with either fire until Saturday morning.
"We want to talk to him," Rice said late last week.
Police on Thursday issued a news release stating the Walmart property "has been secured as a crime scene" and asking the curious to stay away.
"Only authorized persons, investigators and workers associated with the cleaning and restoration of the Walmart, are allowed within the property. Unauthorized entry to this property may result in an immediate arrest for criminal trespass," the news release stated.
About 4:15 p.m. Sept. 2, a small grass fire was reported behind Walmart and quickly extinguished. Guillen "was found near the area of the fire acting suspicious," according to a timeline of events police provided The News on Thursday.
"Jimmy was found to have a red signal flare, and a butane canister along with a lighter on his person."
A police report shows Guillen gave police a red signal flare, a butane or propane canister and a lighter before being released.
Chief Rice said the officer on the scene could not arrest Guillen at that time because the officer did not witness him starting the fire. District Attorney Quentin Ray said an officer usually must witness a crime or have a warrant before making an arrest. Guillen told police he did not start the fire, records show.
Police next encountered Guillen at 6:47 a.m. last Sunday, walking near the fire that has closed Walmart indefinitely. Guillen was brought in for questioning, according to the police timeline, but asked for a lawyer. "We didn't have enough to hold him. Cause of the Walmart Fire was unknown at the time," the police timeline states.
Rice said he did not know specifically why officers wanted to question Guillen at that time, though the police timeline of events said it was in reference to the Walmart fire.
"We were not even thinking arson (could have caused the large Sunday fire)," Rice said, "due to construction, maintenance (around the store) ... we had no thought of it being anything other than accidental at the time."
That thought process began to change about 9 a.m. last Sunday – two hours after Guillen was released from police custody – when a representative from Lowes Home Improvement contacted police. The Lowes associate told police store video showed a man "trying to start plants (on) fire in front of the store," police said. That incident occurred at 3:15 a.m., just 21 minutes before the Walmart store fire.
Police were able to identify Guillen from the Lowe's video and a warrant was issued for his arrest on the alleged breaking and entering.
Court records show Guillen, a white male, is 5-foot-9 inches tall and weighs 200 pounds.
Lowes provided police with a photo of him shopping in the store sometime Sept. 2. The arrest affidavit reports, "Jimmy did not pay for the items in the cart he was using. The items consisted of a torch, lighter fluid and a butane canister."
The misdemeanor arrest affidavit did not indicate when the video of Guillen shopping at Lowes was recorded, but Deputy Police Chief Trevor Thron said it was taken sometime after the small fire behind Walmart on Sept. 2.
Parts of store 'released to Walmart'
Clovis police are referring questions about the cause of the fire to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency.
ATF spokesperson Sara Abel wrote in an email to The News on Friday afternoon that ATF is assisting local officials in the investigation. "They are still actively investigating the causation of the fire and haven't determined whether the fire was an accident or a crime.
"ATF often assist(s) on fire investigations as we have special agents with highly specialized training in investigating fire causation and arson-related evidence."
Abel did not respond to questions from The News and it wasn't immediately clear Saturday morning what new evidence had been gathered to file arson charges against Guillen.
The store remained closed going into the weekend and there was little indication regarding its future.
Rice on Friday said about 30% to 40% of the store has been "released to Walmart," meaning store officials are allowed to work in that area of the building.
The rest of the building, especially the south side, is still off limits to everyone except investigators who are trying to determine the cause of the fire and integrity of the building's structure.
"The only place unsafe now is where the roof collapsed," Rice said. "The engineer said it's safe to work around there, but they do have an alarm that will sound to evacuate the building" if the structure becomes unstable.
Joe Pennington, Walmart's chief of media relations, said Friday there was "no movement" to report in Walmart's assessment of damages and plans for the store. But this week he said Walmart expects to announce plans to open a mobile pharmacy on the Walmart parking lot. That mobile pharmacy unit was on site Friday afternoon.
Steve Hansen of The News contributed to this report.