SAN JOSE -- The city was on edge as a serial arsonist struck at random, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.

So too were a cadre of police and fire investigators working tirelessly to find a culprit.

San Jose police Sgt. Jason Kidwell, coming off a graveyard shift supervising patrols in an arson-ravaged area, used a rare spare moment to make a fateful dive into an array of police databases, leading to the biggest break in the case: a flesh-and-blood suspect.

Before too long, Patrick William Brennan was in police custody astonishingly giving detectives a guided tour of his handiwork.

It ended a literally restless week for residents east of downtown terrified of an arsonist in their midst.

"People who live out there, they were growing more fearful, saying they were staying up," Kidwell said. "We all felt this sense of urgency."

Kidwell is credited with helping identify Brennan, whose streak of 13 malicious fires ended last week thanks to an exhaustive investigative effort by the city's fire and police departments.

The five-day stretch between Jan. 8 and 12 was taxing, especially on the San Jose Fire Department squads who bounced from call to call, exemplified by a Jan. 9 two-alarm house fire that destroyed the home of an elderly couple, quickly followed by a massive five-alarm warehouse blaze.

As the fires continued erupting, arson investigators led by Fire Capt. Chris Murphy tracked patterns and glimpses of the firebug from both passers-by and security cameras.


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"They put in a ton of hours to track down leads and create a profile of who this arsonist could be," SJFD spokesman Capt. Cleo Doss said. "We're very proud of the hard work our arson investigators have done."

The police department Central Division boosted patrols in an area, too, especially around East San Antonio Street west of Highway 101.

Kidwell had been temporarily assigned to Central and was just ending his graveyard shift on Jan. 12 when officers alerted him that witnesses had seen the suspected arsonist running off, each giving similar descriptions.

Kidwell got behind a computer terminal and starting scanning law-enforcement databases, including an internal registry of convicted arsonists in the area. Using the sketch, surveillance images, and witness descriptions, he whittled down the field, noting the fires occurred between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. in close proximity.

"The area itself is contained. And the hour of night tells you he lives in that area," Kidwell said.

The police sketch depicted Brennan as looking much younger than he is. But Kidwell zeroed in on Brennan's unkempt hair with a distinctive gray streak -- shown in the security footage and repeated in witness accounts -- and his tall, thin build.

Further cementing his suspicion was the fact that Brennan lived in a mobile home park in the center of all of the arsons that is barely separated by train tracks from the Baptist church where the first fire occurred.

"That corridor along the tracks, it explains why he disappeared so quickly," Kidwell said.

That evening, police began watching Brennan's every move.

On Wednesday morning, after SJPD officially announced they were working with fire officials to crack the case, it was handed to robbery unit detectives Todd Jennings and Jesus Mendoza.

They and Murphy, the arson investigator, reviewed every incident and the detectives called back two witnesses with the closest encounters to look at a photo lineup. One was a woman who was driving when she saw him lighting a fire. The other was a man walking his dog who spotted the suspect on foot leaving the scene of a fire. Both of them picked out Brennan from the lineup.

The evidence, the database photo and surveillance photos were presented to a judge, who signed an arrest warrant for Brennan. SJPD officers moved in on Brennan's trailer about 8 p.m. Wednesday.

He surrendered without a fight and soon Jennings and Mendoza were face-to-face with Brennan in an interrogation room.

"He was not emotional at all. He didn't have any highs or lows," Jennings said. "He straight-up said he knew people were in the homes, and he just did it. But he didn't think the whole house would burn down."

"I said, 'Patrick, you knew these homes were occupied, you knew what would happen, what were you thinking?'" Jennings said. "He just wanted to light the fire. He didn't stand around to watch."

Brennan then reportedly told them that stress triggers his arson tendencies, and this time he was dismayed by his mother's Alzheimer's deteriorating to the point she no longer recognized him.

Then Brennan agreed to take them on a tour of his alleged work. The suspect's demeanor turned 180 degrees.

"The walkthrough, that was unbelievable," Jennings said. "We had to pull him back, he was running ahead of us, he was so excited."

Brennan, Jennings said, exhibited pinpoint recall of where he set the fires, which stunned him and his partner given how dark it was outside.

"He hadn't been back. He didn't realize how bad or how much damage and destruction there was," Jennings said. "It was really strange to see just how much he was into it."

Because of two prior felony convictions -- including a string of arsons in the Santa Clara County west hills in 1999 -- Brennan faces life imprisonment under the state's three-strikes law. That appears to be a relief for residents and investigators alike.

"It feels very rewarding and nice to be a piece of it," said Kidwell, the sergeant who made the break in the case. "Everyone contributed to restoring the city's peace of mind."

Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.