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Former Calif. firefighter accused of planting explosives near roadways pleads not guilty

Benjamin Cunha was arraigned on several felony charges including possessing and exploding an explosive device with the “intent to injure, intimidate and terrify a person”

By Molly Jarone
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A former firefighter pleaded not guilty Wednesday after he was arrested last week on suspicion of detonating an improvised explosive device and planting several others across El Dorado and Sacramento counties.

Benjamin Cunha, 41, was arrested last Friday after an investigation by the FBI, California Highway Patrol and El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office, the CHP and Sheriff’s Office said in statements.

Cunha, of Orangevale, was arraigned on several felony charges including possessing and exploding an explosive device with the “intent to injure, intimidate, and terrify a person, and to wrongfully injure and destroy property,” according to the criminal complaint.

He faces 11 counts of allegedly possessing an explosive device “in, on, and near a public place ordinarily passed by human beings,” court documents said. Cunha also faces a special allegation for having a previous felony conviction.

The Sheriff’s Office in a social media post said Cunha was arrested following an investigation into a “series of improvised explosive devices that had been placed alongside roads and highways, in multiple locations in El Dorado County and Sacramento County.” Sheriff’s officials did not specify which roadways were involved.

In a separate social media post, the CHP said Cunha was apprehended after an “intense operation” in which an explosive ordinance disposal team carried out “critical search warrants.”

Cunha was convicted of arson in 2016 after pleading guilty to setting at least 30 fires in rural areas east of Sacramento during 2006 and 2007, causing $7 million in damage, The Sacramento Bee reported at the time. He was sentenced in early 2017 to five years in prison and agreed to pay $246,862 in restitution to Cal Fire.

He set the fires after serving as a volunteer firefighter for the Diamond Springs Fire Protection District in El Dorado County. Cunha also worked from 2001 to 2003 as a seasonal firefighter for Cal Fire, The Bee reported.

Cunha “was motivated by boredom and the desire to be paid overtime when called out to fight fires,” according to a written plea agreement filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento in the arson case. Even though he was a volunteer, he could have been eligible for payment during busy periods, Robert Combs, chief of the Diamond Springs district, said at the time.

Cunha is being held in the El Dorado County Jail and is ineligible for bail, court records show. Sheriff’s officials earlier said Cunha’s bail was set at $2.1 million.

The El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for further information about Cunha’s arrest.

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