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California fire chief arrested in stabbing death

  • 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. » Despite reported sightings as distant as Los Angeles and Oregon, a former California fire battalion chief suspected in the stabbing death of his girlfriend never moved far from home as he eluded capture for more than two weeks, authorities said Friday.

Orville "Moe" Fleming was arrested after a detective spotted him boarding a public bus around noon as he apparently went looking for food, said homicide Detective Brian Meux.

He had shaved his moustache, changed into clothes he bought at a thrift shop, wore a hat and had been hiding in dense vegetation, avoiding capture despite multiple searches of the area using aircraft and tracking dogs.

Fleming "was basically hidden in plain sight," Meux said, close enough that he could hear the search helicopters circling overhead. "He was a lone survivor for those 16 days."

He was dirty and disheveled but was arrested unarmed and without incident near where he had abandoned his official California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection pickup in a Sacramento suburb May 1.

That’s the same day deputies found the body of Sarah June Douglas inside the south Sacramento she had shared with Fleming for the past two years. Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones said the 26-year-old was "brutally stabbed" and detectives found "a horrific crime scene."

Jones said Fleming "admitted culpability in the stabbing of Miss Douglas" after his arrest. Meux said Fleming has not retained a lawyer.

Investigators had feared that Fleming, 55, would use his unique skills and tools to escape into a remote area. Fleming has considerable outdoor skills, was familiar with California’s mountains because of his career as a wildland firefighter, and had keys to state fire facilities throughout the state.

Yet there was no sign that Fleming used those skills, Meux and Jones said, other than a blind determination to avoid capture.

He was fired from his job as a battalion chief and fire academy instructor after failing to show up at work for a week after the slaying.

"We are pleased that this search is over and the sheriff’s office has apprehended Mr. Fleming," said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "We will continue to support the sheriff and the district attorney in any way we can as the judicial process continues."

Meux said Fleming moved in with Douglas after meeting her as an escort who advertised on the Internet, but by the time of the slaying they were in "a romantic dating relationship."

"This was a domestic violence homicide," Meux said, and detectives treated it that way despite what Jones called the "sensational" nature of the case.

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

Fleming’s estranged wife, Meagan Fleming, had sought a protective order against Douglas last fall, alleging Douglas was harassing her and her adult children in an attempt to get money from Orville Fleming. The request was denied a day later without being considered, when a judge said Meagan Fleming had not properly filled out the required form.

Meagan Fleming did not return telephone and email messages Friday. Meux said relatives of both Fleming and Douglas expressed relief when they were informed of his arrest.

Investigators had feared Fleming might have fled as far as Canada or Mexico, Meux said, and had received hundreds of tips, including unsubstantiated sightings hundreds of miles away.

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