Arsonist in People’s Park set tent on fire with man inside, police say

A man living in the park has been hospitalized after someone lit his tent on fire Tuesday morning and hit him multiple times with a golf club, police say.

Flames reached 10 feet in a fire Tuesday morning that police are investigating as arson. Credit: Citizen reporter

A man living in People’s Park has been hospitalized after someone lit his tent on fire while he was in it and then hit him multiple times with a golf club Tuesday morning, police say. Smoke was visible from the Berkeley Hills.

The man was found on Bowditch Street, bordering the park, and was breathing but “could barely talk to us,” said University of California Police Department Sgt. Patrick O’Donnell.

UCPD is investigating the incident as aggravated assault and arson and searching for the man responsible. The victim was taken to Highland Hospital with “significant injuries,” according to police. O’Donnell said he was hit in the head.  

The Berkeley Fire Department responded to reports of a tent fire around 7 a.m. Tuesday and found a fire in the center of the park with 10-foot flames. A nearby encampment resident told Berkeleyside that he had tried to put it out with his fire extinguisher but it was too hot for him to get close. Another resident said she’d heard the sound of “something in there blowing up.” UC Berkeley sent out an email warning people to avoid the area.

The fire was put out by 7:14 a.m. At 8:30 a.m., about half a dozen UCPD officers were circulating around the park interviewing residents and a crew of UC Berkeley staff members were throwing away the charred remnants of the burned tent — including a microwave, a mini fridge, a heat lamp, chairs and clothes. 

UC Berkeley crews clean up the wreckage of a tent fire in People’s Park on Tuesday, May 24. Credit: Zac Farber

A man named Sam, who lived in a tent adjacent to the one that burned, was picking through his scorched belongings. “I just woke up to the fire,” he said, adding that he didn’t think there was anyone in the tent next to him at the time of the fire. He hoped to stay in a hotel Tuesday evening.

Sam said he’d been living in People’s Park with his wife for the past few months and Berkeley for the past three years. He said he didn’t know the man living in the burned tent well but that they got along and he trusted him. He said the man had been arguing with someone the night before.

UCPD described the suspect as a 6-foot Black man with dark complexion of medium build wearing a gray t-shirt and light blue jeans and last seen walking south on foot. Those with information about the incident are asked to call UCPD at 510-642-6760.

Smoke rising from the fire was visible from the Lawrence Hall of Science. Credit: Ben Corson
Zac Farber is managing editor of Berkeleyside. Email: zac@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: zacfarber.