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Jury finds Safe Haven arsonist guilty

A jury found a Colusa man guilty of arson on Friday in connection with the fire that destroyed Safe Haven Wellness and Recovery Center on Oct. 24, 2019.

Robert Dean Cates, 74, also known as Robert Dean Koym, had been a peer leader of the Behavioral Health program, but had been voted off the board of directors just prior to the fire – which occurred inside the locked structure, according to Deputy District Attorney Winston Welch, who prosecuted the case.

Case, who was reportedly distressed after the election, had the keys to the building.

“He had the motive, he had the means, and he had the opportunity,” Welch said.

According to federal arson investigator, Special Agent Brian Parker, who testified at Cates’ trial, the fire was intentionally set in the sitting area of the front room.

Safe Haven is a peer-supported drop-in center for adults dealing with mental health issues, alcoholism, and substance abuse.

Safe Haven had just moved from its Main Street location into the former Colusa Woman’s Club, located at 517 Oak St., the month prior to the fire, and the group had just celebrated its grand opening.

The building had been a floor covering company in more recent years.

The Cates trial was the first jury trial to reach completion since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Two previous trials – one for a known gang member; the other for a bank robber – ended abruptly with the defendants taking a plea deal.

Although Cates took the stand in his own defense to deny starting the fire, he was likely ‘done in’ by being a creature of habit.

Public Defender Albert Smith described the blurry surveillance camera images of the individual entering and exiting Safe Haven around 5 AM, on the morning of the fire, as moths flying in a snowstorm – but there was no mistaking Cates’ folded flat top military hat, blue jeans, and jean jacket, a manner of dress Cates admitted to adhering to the past 12 years.

Colusa County Superior Court was no exception, with Cates wearing the same or similar clothes seen on the video during the proceedings; his flat top hat perched next to him on the defense table.

Although Cates’ face is obscured in the photos, surveillance picked up his unique gate and distinct hairline, particularly as he exited the building just prior to fire firefighters being called to the scene.

The jury, comprised of seven men and five women, also didn’t believe Cates’ alibi.

Cates originally told investigators that he had been home alone in his bed asleep when the early-morning fire broke out, but later changed that to spending the night sleeping on the sofa at a friend’s Colusa Gardens apartment.

That alibi didn’t hold up after the jury also heard a recorded jailhouse conversation with a friend, Jessica Hull, in which Cates pressured Hull to confirm the new story.

Hull, who testified in trial that Cates had spent the night of the fire at her house, said in the jailhouse conversation 11 month earlier that she had no recollection of the date that he stayed overnight.

The jury deliberated for about 30 minutes before reaching a guilty verdict on the felony charge of arson of a structure. They also found Cates guilty of possession of a firearm by a felon, after investigators found a gun inside a suitcase at his residence while executing a search warrant.

Although Cates testified he knew nothing of the weapon and that the suitcase belonged to a deceased friend, Cates was previously known to possess weapons.

In 1997, Cates, then using the name Robert Dean Koym, was charged with murder in the shooting death of Bolivar Delgado, but was convicted by a jury of criminally negligent homicide and tampering with physical evidence after the only witness to the shooting refused to testify.

Cates (Koym) testified in his own defense, in that trial, that the three men had been drinking in the apartment of Tim Jolly, an acquaintance, when he (Koym) left to fetch his shotgun from his nearby apartment, in order to show and possibly sell the gun to Delgado.

According to Alaskan court records, Cates (Koym) said he did not know the weapon was loaded when it went off accidentally, fatally shooting Delgado in the stomach, during a struggle with Jolly, who had tried to take possession of the gun.

Although Jolly, who called 911 immediately after the incident, told police that Cates (Koym) pointed and fired the weapon at Delgado and then left the apartment, Jolly never took the witness stand on the grounds that he could incriminate himself, court records show.

Cates was arrested, and the shotgun retrieved from a snowbank where it was buried, about an hour after the shooting, after Cates (Koym) reportedly went to the residence of another friend and told him what had happened and where the weapon could be found.

Alaskan records indicate that Cates was also convicted of two misdemeanor assaults in 1991, one of which was committed on Cates’ girlfriend, and another on a man Cates suspected of “being too friendly ” with his girlfriend. On both occasions, Cates was intoxicated, records show.

While investigating the Colusa fire, DA officials discovered Cates has a criminal history in California, dating to the 1970s, including allegations involving burglary, vehicle theft, and carrying a concealed weapon. According to court records, Cates has a number of alcohol related crimes, including several for intoxicated driving, including a Colusa County DUI conviction in 2010.

The arson investigator who investigated the Safe Haven fire testified at Cates’ trial that he ruled out possible electrical or mechanical failures as a possibility for causing the fire, and found the fire’s point of origin was in the sitting area at the far end of a sofa.

An accelerant was not used but by 5:12 AM, the fire had gutted the interior of the building, destroyed the camera and video equipment, and was visible to a local resident who drove past the building at 5:17 AM and called 9-1-1.

The building has since been completely demolished.

Cates will be sentenced in Colusa County Superior Court on July 17. 

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