Brothers charged after entering fire evacuation area to retrieve mother's belongings

A North Bay man has a big decision to make: Go to trial or take a plea deal for an unusual charge stemming from October's firestorm. 

Evan Neumann and his brother, Mark, were both arrested while inside an evacuation area, trying to walk to their mother's burned-down house.

"They said, 'Freeze,' and we froze, and that was our first interaction with police,"  Evan Newmann, 45, told KTVU on Tuesday, showing a thick file of legal documents he has amassed since the incident and subsequent prosecution.

He and his brother, 32, were both charged with unlawful entry into a disaster area.   

"U.S. Army men with guns were keeping us from our house where we wanted to try to save anything we could that was left, before it rained on it , it was just so awful,"  Evan Newmann said.  

The encounter happened eight days after the firestorm in the Fountain Grove neighborhood. The evacuation lines were "porous" then, Eric Newmann said, and the area opened up to everyone just a few days after his arrest.

The men never made it to their mother's Lyon Court house, because National Guardsmen at a checkpoint called police on them, and even when they explained their intentions and showed proof of their connection to the property, a Santa Rosa police sergeant was unrelenting. 

"They seemed like they wanted to make a statement, make an example of us, even though there hadn't been a threat there for days," Evan Newmann said. "And by the time we got out of jail, it was raining, and the whole point was to get there before the rain came."

Next stop, Sonona County Superior Court. 

Mark Neumann, with a new baby and a business to help run, decided not to fight.

He pleaded guilty and accepted probation and more than 100 hours of community service. 

But Evan Newmann, a self-described Libertarian, decided to act as his own attorney and go to trial, now set for Thursday.

"We spent, like, four days trying to get permission to go up there, we tried to do it legitimately, we were not being sneaky," Evan Newmann said, outlining some of his defense strategy. 

The case has generated hundreds of reactions on a firestorm Facebook page, some commenters criticizing the brothers for disrespecting the law, many others outraged that the Sonoma County District Attorney is prosecuting.  

""What bullsh*# and waste of taxpayers time and money" is a prevailing sentiment.

"Jury trial of your firestorm peers, do not take any plea offered!" reads another opinion. 

But Tuesday, the District Attorney did offer a plea: reduced probation and service hours for both brothers, and the opportunity to expunge their records earlier. 

Evan Neumann is conflicted. 

He has a stack of witness statements from dozens of fire survivors who have reached out to him.

They have shared their own stories of getting past barricades to visit their destroyed homes, often while still smoldering and without much hassle. 

A sympathetic guard or an alternate route often made the difference. 

"Look I have friends who died in this fire, and this was as big an emergency as it gets and I am so thankful and grateful to the first responders," Evan Newmann said, whose grew up in Santa Rosa. 

He believes a jury would be unlikely to convict him, but is leaning toward taking the DA's deal.

"If my family wasn't involved and I didn't have children, I would fight to the ends of Earth," he explained, "but this would help my brother too, and keep my mom from having to come testify." 

He has a day to decide, but is certain about one thing: "I would do it again, even knowing the outcome, I would do it again."