Well that was quick! 30-year-old bioengineer-turned-yoga instructor Alexandra Souverneva has been deemed mentally incompetent to face trial by a judge in Shasta County, so this means that she will not immediately be facing prosecution for the September 22 Fawn Fire, which ended up destroying 185 structures.
The Mercury News reports that Judge Adam Ryan has, following evaluations by two psychiatrists, ruled that Souverneva is not fit for trial. The ruling means that Souverneva does not have the mental fitness to adequately aid attorneys in her defense, and that she may not fully understand why she is on trial.
Souverneva, who most recently lived in Palo Alto, was quickly determined to be the sole suspect in the Fawn Fire, which ignited near a quarry in Shasta County — and near which Souverneva emerged from the woods seeking help from firefighters shortly after the fire began.
Subsequent reports from investigators revealed that Souverneva had admitted to trying to boil water over an open flame in the vicinity, reportedly because she believed there may be "bear urine" in the water and she was thirsty.
She was also found in possession of a lighter and some quantity of cannabis. And she claimed to have been hiking to Canada — but only hours before her arrest she had been released from police custody for some other odd incident that has not been fully explained. Also, authorities believe she was likely responsible for a separate fire the night before the Fawn Fire began, which was quickly put out.
The case of the Fawn Fire arson ended up garnering national attention because Souverneva did not seem to fit the typical profile of an arsonist. However mental illness is often a factor in the cases of serial arsonists, experts say.
Where the case goes now is, likely, on the shelf for a while, as Souverneva is likely headed to a state facility for psychiatric treatment. She can only be held there involuntarily for two years, and her mental competency may improve with treatment, making her eligible for trial at some point.
Longtime Bay Area residents may recall the lengthy, frustrating case of mass shooter One Goh, the man accused in the 2012 Oikos University shooting in Oakland that took the lives of seven people.
It took years for Goh's mental competency to be deemed sufficient to face trial, after which Goh would ultimately plead no contest five years after the shooting, in 2017. Less than two years later, in March 2019, Goh would turn up dead at California State Prison-Sacramento of unknown causes at the age of 50, and the cause of death has never been made public.
As San Jose defense attorney and mental competency expert Malorie Street tells the Mercury News, competency can be fluid, and a defendant can go in and out of lucid and incompetent states at different times.
"That’s one of the challenges — there can be times where the person is cooperating, and then other times where they just can’t, they don’t have the capacity," Street explains.
If convicted, Souverneva could face nine years for wildland arson and other charges.