Caldor Fire Witnesses Speak Out for the First Time: Part Three – Billy’s Story

Part One of this story introduced us to Travis Alvarez, who shared his story of meeting the Smiths moments after the Caldor Fire began. In Part Two we met Travis’ girlfriend, Amanda Serum, who recounted her run in with an old friend named Andy who told her his father, Billy Freeman, started the fire. Her story was disturbingly specific and appears, at least in part, to have been corroborated by several people close to the Freemans.

William “Billy” Freeman is an El Dorado County native. Friends and family describe him as kind, gentle, and quiet. They also paint a picture of a man suffering from debilitating drug addiction. While still possessing a good heart, they say, drugs have slowly caused Billy to lose nearly everything. He is estranged from much of his family and his mental and physical health have declined, according to several close friends.

For several years, Billy has been living between a makeshift cabin near a Happy Valley ranch and a tent he keeps next to the Middle Fork of the Cosumnes River. To make ends meet, he does odd jobs for area ranch owners and pans for gold in the Cosumnes. I’m told he occasionally stays the night in a friend’s home in the Omo Ranch area when he is particularly hungry or the weather is bad.

I am told Billy doesn’t have the ability to charge his cell phone consistently and, even when does, the coverage in his area is spotty. It took weeks of texts, phone calls, and local contacts physically travelling to his camp before I was able to connect with Billy. Our first interaction took place through Facebook Messenger.

I asked Billy if he could broadly share his experience in the first days of the Caldor Fire. He remembers being aware of a fire to the east, but not realizing how serious the situation was until the night “the sky was glowing red over Grizzly Flats.” The following day, Billy decided to stay and help protect the ranch despite being ordered to evacuate. He recalls working alongside CalFire ground crews as flames came within 200 feet of his cabin.

I told Billy his story was interesting and asked if we could continue the interview by phone. He agreed, and said he would have a better signal in just a few hours when he would be in Pleasant Valley to run errands. We set up the phone call 2:00 p.m. that day. Billy then continued to message me about his experience as the fire reached the Happy Valley area the week after the fire began.

I again asked if he could also tell me about his experience the first days of the fire, August 14th and 15th, as it grew out of the Middle Fork and Dogtown Creek convergence. At this point, Billy stopped responding and I assumed he was on his way to Pleasant Valley. But 2:00 p.m. came and went. Billy didn’t answer my calls or texts that day, or any of the following days. Eventually I chose the aggressive route and left messages for Billy stating that his family has accused him of starting the Caldor Fire and I’d like to offer him the chance to respond before I publish the story. He didn’t reply.

It was time to move on. The story was turning into several articles and I needed to start writing. I published the first part of the story and then interviewed Andy Freeman. A week later I published Andy and Amanda’s story, detailing the accusations against Billy which Amanda had shared with USFS investigators. My phone was ringing the next morning.

It was Billy.

“I read your stories. I am just shocked. I had nothing to do with this fire. I’m not gonna stoop to my son’s level. He’s just a story teller. Always has been,” Billy said. Despite his shock, he was polite and patient throughout our interview. He made clear he was frustrated by the accusations but his demeanor was consistently calm and relaxed.

After assuring him I would accurately share his side of the story, I asked Billy if there were any truthful pieces of Andy’s account which may have have been misconstrued or exaggerated. “Just one,” he said.

A year before the fire, Billy was cited for at least eight illegal campfire pits in the area he pans for gold south of Happy Valley. According to Billy, though, he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. He said he happened to be there picking up trash when he ran into a USFS official. “I guess because I was near a bunch of fire pits they cited me. They weren’t mine. They weren’t even burning,” Billy told me.

He went on to say the fines for the citations totaled $1,800, but he never paid. “That was a year ago. I never heard anything about it. Never got a court date. I guess I wasn’t charged, so I just didn’t pay,” he said. Billy believes it may have been these citations which led Andy to tell others that Billy has a “history” of illegal campfires. Other than this, he claims, there is no truth to anything else Andy told Amanda and others, myself included.

I asked Billy why his friends would have contacted his family to report him missing if he wasn’t missing at all. “I have no idea. I wasn’t missing. I was up here fighting the fire the whole time,” he said. He told me that bulldozers, which were cutting fire lines in the area, had knocked over a telephone pole which removed power and internet access for him and others in the area. Because of this, he said, his family “probably thought I was missing because I couldn’t message or call anyone for awhile.”

I reminded Billy that flames hadn’t tore through Grizzly flats until August 17th, and fire lines weren’t cut in the Happy Valley area until much later. So, why did his friends call his family on August 17th to say they hadn’t seen him “in days?” Where was he between August 14th and 16th?

Billy then told me that on August 14th, he was with a friend’s son camping along the Middle Fork approximately 5-7 miles west of the where the Caldor Fire began. “I was nowhere near there. I haven’t been down to Dogtown Creek or anywhere around there in three years,” he told me.

I asked Billy for the names of the friend and the friend’s son. He was hesitant. I explained that if these friends could verify that he was nowhere near the start of the fire on August 14th I would publish it as quickly as possible. He eventually shared one of the friends’ names and told me he would have them call me after we hung up.

I never received a phone call from Billy’s friends. I reached out to them but they did not respond. In the days following our interview I called and texted Billy, urging him to set up a phone call so I could verify his location on the 14th. He didn’t reply.

In our interview, Billy also told me he doesn’t own a quad and he doesn’t know why so many people told me he did. “I never even drove a quad,” he said. He was unable to explain why his friends reported him “last seen on his quad” before they called his family to say he was missing. He also doesn’t understand why his family states that a sheriff’s deputy told them that Billy was spotted on his quad on August 18th, which is why law enforcement didn’t proceed with a missing person investigation.

Billy told me he didn’t know he was reported missing until he saw social media posts weeks later after his internet access was restored. He gave me consent to read some of his messages during that time period. One of them was from his mother, who was expressing concern for his safety after being told he was missing. He responded that he was safe and near the Happy Valley Ranch. Both messages was dated August 18th, 2021. I asked about the discrepancy and Billy responded that he must have been confused on the days.

I asked Billy if any investigators or law enforcement ever spoke with him about the Caldor Fire. “No, no one. Nobody came looking for me. No one interviewed me,” he replied. I questioned if he was ever aware that USDA agents went to his sister and mother’s home looking for him. “My mom said they went there to tell her I was found and okay. Nothing about the Caldor Fire,” Billy said.

Sources close to the investigation into the Smiths tell me that they believe Billy was indeed never questioned about the Caldor Fire nor Andy’s allegations, because no such report exists. Andy has told me previously he also was never questioned, and Amanda confirmed to me that no agent followed up with her after their initial interview.

Towards the end of our interview I went through Amanda’s story and Andy’s allegations again, asking Billy for any final thoughts. He said that Andy was lying “because he has something personal against me. My family is just lying, too. I wasn’t missing. They knew how to get ahold of me they just chose not to.” I asked one last time about Billy’s sister and the card left behind by USDA agents. “She isn’t being honest either. Like my mom said, those agents were just there to say I was okay,” he said.

As we wrapped up, I thanked Billy for his time and asked if I could follow up with additional questions in the coming days. He welcomed me to do so.

Despite numerous attempts, I never heard from Billy Freeman again.

This story will be updated if the friends purportedly with Billy Freeman on August 14th return my requests for comment.

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