Man arrested for setting fire to cell towers

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Gildardo Herrera Gonzalez

A string of mysterious fires at nine separate cell phone towers in Knoxville led authorities to arrest a 36-year-old man for arson, officials said Thursday. 

But they also said they were no closer to understanding why the man allegedly set the series of fires, which started in June. 

Gildardo Herrera Gonzalez, who has an East Knoxville address, was taken into custody Wednesday afternoon by investigators from the Knoxville Fire Department, according to Assistant Chief Mark Wilbanks.

“The motive is not known at this time,” said Wilbanks, adding that it was “likely not terrorism.”

“Knoxville Fire Investigators have investigated a total of nine fires since June of 2022 at local cell phone tower sites throughout the city of Knoxville,” he said. “There were various tower sites throughout the downtown and North Knoxville area, to my knowledge there were none in West Knox.”

The cell towers sustained varying amounts of damage, usually “melted components and heat damage to exterior portions of the sites,” he explained. 

“I am not aware that any towers were taken out of service,” said Wilbanks. “It appears that the sites are owned by several different companies. There are also several leases on the tower sites, for example AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon.”

According to arrest warrants filed by KFD Investigator Paul  Taylor, one of the most recent fires took place on September 12 at 121 Hawthorne Street in South Knoxville.

A suspect set fire “to a structure used as a cell phone tower and associated communication equipment inside a privately owned, secured area containing a cell tower with equipment,” Taylor reported.

“Video from the cell phone tower shows a Hispanic male with a distinctive gait, a gray backpack, wearing black-and-white shoes placing combustible material inside the cell phone tower and setting it on fire,” the investigator wrote.

Just before 1 p.m. Wednesday, KFD investigators saw a man matching the description of the suspect in the September 12 walking down Central Street in North Knoxville, he continued.

The suspect, identified as Herrera Gonzalez, was stopped by the investigators and gave permission to search his backpack.

“In the backpack were two lighters, multiple tools, and paperwork from a T-Mobile cellphone tower,” Taylor said.

Herrera Gonzalez was charged with arson and setting fire to personal property, court records show. He was booked into the Knox County jail system and was being held without bond as of late Thursday.

Even if a bond amount is set, he is being held as a potential undocumented immigrant for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and won’t be freed until his immigration status is resolved, records show.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on October 7, 2022.