The case of Mr. Maynard, the criminology professor, appears to show both the stresses of the pandemic, links to mental illness and the arduous work of stopping arsonists before they cause irreparable harm. Investigators tracked Mr. Maynard’s movements using his food stamp transactions, phone records and a device they attached to his car in the Lumberjacks parking lot.
An itinerant professor who received his doctorate in sociology from Stony Brook University in New York and taught at Santa Clara, Chapman and Sonoma State Universities, among others, Mr. Maynard had a particular fascination with the 1978 Jonestown massacre in Guyana. He wrote at least six articles related to Jonestown and Jim Jones, the cult leader.
In his writings, Mr. Maynard said he was drawn to the topic in part because it helped him to explore the field of social deviance. His Jonestown studies focused on those suffering severe forms of narcissistic personality disorder, “when the world they have known in the past starts to spin out of their control.”
In interviews, former students described Mr. Maynard as anxious, troubled and, at times, inappropriate. One said he often taught his classes during the pandemic via Zoom from a darkened bedroom, revealing details about an ailing father, a lawsuit against his former landlord and his battles with his mental health.
Last year, his life appearing to unravel further, Mr. Maynard lived in his car, according to court documents. As he traversed Northern California, he sent messages to students that included rantings, as well as links to YouTube videos — meandering footage of trees and mountains — in which he ruminated on the state of the world. He also appeared fascinated by arson.
Heather Williams, a federal public defender who is representing Mr. Maynard, said her team was investigating Mr. Maynard’s employment history, but she provided no other details about his personal life or a possible interest in fire. “We cannot ethically answer your questions at this time,” she wrote by email.