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California fire chief eludes statewide manhunt

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  • State fire battalion chief Orville Fleming. The Sacramento County Coroner's Office has identified a 26-year-old woman whose death prompted a manhunt for Fleming. (AP Photo/Sacramento County Sheriff's Dept.)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. >> A former state fire battalion chief’s knowledge of the outdoors and ability to fade into the wilderness by drawing on skills and resources he used on his job makes the search for him more complicated and dangerous, authorities said Friday.

Orville “Moe” Fleming vanished more than a week ago, abandoning his official California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection pickup in a Sacramento suburb before sheriff’s investigators were alerted to the body of 26-year-old Sarah June Douglas. She was found stabbed to death inside the south Sacramento home they had shared for the last two years. Authorities previously gave the victim’s middle name as Jane but now say that was incorrect.

Sacramento County Sheriff’s Sgt. Lisa Bowman said the manhunt is complicated by Fleming’s considerable skills in the outdoors, his familiarity with California’s mountains and a set of keys that give him access to hundreds of state fire buildings and storage facilities.

“He knows the land much better than anybody, because in the scope of his job he’s worked in the backcountry and he knows what’s available to him,” she said. “He’s got more access to a way to survive and a way to hide out.”

The keys can unlock gates meant to keep vehicles out of remote areas and provide access to roughly two dozen isolated wildfire lookout towers, locked caches of food and firefighting tools, air bases, firefighting camps and fire stations.

Two handguns registered to Fleming have not been found, Bowman said.

Fleming was a CalFire battalion chief until he was fired this week for failing to show up for work at a department training facility. Armed guards are patrolling the training grounds, and department spokesman Daniel Berlant said Fleming’s wanted poster has been plastered on each of CalFire’s hundreds of facilities statewide.

Yet Fleming may no longer look like the man firefighters knew during his 21 years with the department, Bowman said. When he temporarily shaved his head and moustache last fall, she said it changed his appearance so that even his family and friends didn’t recognize him.

Investigators have received hundreds of tips, including unsubstantiated sightings as distant as Oregon and Los Angeles. Yet they say he is particularly familiar with the Yosemite Valley, other regions of the Sierra Nevada and with the Santa Cruz Mountains.

“He’s on the run; he knows he’s wanted. He very well could have altered his appearance and very likely he’s got two guns,” Bowman said. “We do have a valid fear for the public. What is he going to do if he gets cornered?”

Investigators say Fleming, 55, moved in with Douglas after meeting her as an escort who advertised on the Internet. The victim’s past and comments Fleming’s estranged wife made to investigators have sparked as yet unsubstantiated reports of an incriminating sex tape.

Bowman said investigators are aware of Douglas’ history as an escort and that Meagan Fleming, the estranged wife, has told them that she viewed a tape showing Douglas having sex with her husband and other firefighters on firetrucks.

Court records available online show that Orville Fleming filed for divorce from his wife in Fresno County Superior Court in October, but the case has not been finalized.

Bowman will not say whether detectives have a video like the one Fleming’s wife described to sheriff’s investigators. Instead, she said the department’s priority is finding the fugitive.

Berlant said CalFire is not asking Fleming’s estranged wife or other firefighters about the purported sex tape because the department does not want to interfere with the criminal investigation.

“If anything comes to light through the sheriff’s investigation … obviously we will take the necessary action,” he said. “We do not tolerate that type of behavior. But at this point, that is still an unsubstantiated allegation.”

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