LOS ANGELES — Hunting for the arsonist who they believed had set several mysterious fires around one of the city’s high schools this month, police in Irvine say they finally found their culprit before dawn July 24 in an adjacent nature preserve.
Police arrested Rainer Reinscheid, a 48-year-old professor at UC Irvine, on charges of trying to light a fire in Mason Park Preserve with newspaper and lighter fluid. It was not far from the wooded spot where his 14-year-old son, Claas Stubbe, had hanged himself four months earlier.
Reinscheid, who teaches in the department of pharmaceutical science, posted bail and was released that day.
But when police examined his cellphone three days later, they found something they described as much more sinister: e-mails in which he allegedly spoke of committing mass murder at University High School, the campus his son had attended.
In the e-mails, Reinscheid had allegedly planned to obtain firearms to murder students and administrators, commit sexual assault, burn down the school and then kill himself, said Farrah Emami, spokeswoman for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
“We did take these e-mails very seriously,” Emami said.
The professor was arrested again and is now being held, at the request of prosecutors, without bail.
Police in Irvine, which frequently touts itself as the nation’s safest city of its size, say they did not uncover evidence that he had actually put any such murder plot into motion.
“We did not find diagrams and stores of weapons, but he articulated in very concerning language the desire to harm all those people,” said Lt. Julia Engen, spokeswoman for the Irvine Police Department. “We have to presume that that’s what he wanted to do.”
Engen said police increased patrols in the University High School area after a series of small fires in and around the school started July 4.
The fires did not injure anyone or burn down any structures but left school property scorched, Engen said, and police feared that another fire might ignite the preserve’s dry brush and cause a major fire.
Police said Reinscheid tried to flee when he was found in the preserve last Tuesday. During the investigation, authorities said, police linked Reinscheid to recent acts of arson at the home of Michael Georgino, an assistant principal at University High School.
Acquaintances say Reinscheid had been furious at University High School for how it handled his son’s death.
“He was angry and unsatisfied with the investigation into his son’s death,” said Bruce Blumberg, a professor in Reinscheid’s department at UC Irvine. Blumberg described Claas Stubbe as “a sweet and sensitive boy.”
Before his suicide, Claas Stubbe was disciplined for what Irvine school spokesman Ian Hanigan described as a “fairly minor” matter involving a theft from a student store. He was given trash pickup duty as a punishment.
There were rumors the boy had been bullied, though Hanigan maintained that no evidence was found to support the claim. Irvine police said they were unable to verify what drove him to suicide.
“There is just a tragic situation for Reinscheid and his family,” Engen said, but added: “This is such an irrational response…. This is not a normal grieving.”
Reinscheid will be arraigned Aug. 8 on five felony counts of arson, one felony count of attempted arson and a misdemeanor count of resisting arrest. He has not been charged in connection with the alleged plot. He faces up to 12 years and eight months in prison if convicted.
Irvine school superintendent Terry Walker called the allegations “extremely disturbing” in a statement issued Tuesday afternoon. School officials are assisting with the ongoing investigation “in any way we can,” he said.
“As troubling as these charges are, we are reassured that law enforcement officials believe he acted alone and that he is currently behind bars,” Walker said.
It is not the first bizarre incident reported this year in the affluent Orange County city known for its low crime rate, master-planned neighborhoods and highly rated schools. Last month, Irvine police arrested a pair of local attorneys, Kent and Jill Easter, on charges they had conspired to plant drugs on a volunteer at their son’s elementary school in retaliation for perceived mistreatment of the boy.