Did This Professor Go Crazy?

California scholar Rainer Reinscheid is accused of an arson spree and plotting to kill 200 high-school students. His lawyer says he was just anguished over the death of his son. Christine Pelisek attends the dramatic court hearing.

01.30.13 1:30 AM ET

Last July, the California cities of Irvine and Costa Mesa were plagued by a series of small fires. Some were started at a high school, others in a nearby park, and others at the home of a local high school assistant principal who reported that his running shoes, a book, and a pile of newspapers were set ablaze.

Police feared that a serial arsonist was at work. They caught a break on July 24, 2012, when two officers patrolling Mason Park Preserve spotted a man crouched down just after midnight, carrying a bag with lighter fluid. The man, a college professor named Rainer Reinscheid, told officers that he was going to a barbecue.

Police didn’t buy the German national’s claim; he was arrested and posted bail. Three days later, Reinscheid was arrested again and dragged back to court after detectives discovered a number of emails he had drafted to his wife and friends allegedly describing his arson attempts as well as a plot to torture, rape, and murder students and administrators at University High School—the same school where the fires were set.

“Basically, we have a confession,” said Deputy District Attorney Andrew Katz during a preliminary hearing in an Orange County courtroom yesterday, referring to the emails. “In an email he is reaching out to others to kill [the assistant principal].”

Katz claims that Reinscheid started his arson spree shortly after his 14-year-old son Claas, a University High School student, hanged himself on March 14. The teen committed suicide shortly after he was disciplined for stealing something from the student store and punished with trash pick-up duties at lunch.

The arsons, said Katz, were committed at the home of the assistant principal who disciplined Reinscheid’s son, the school where his son attended, and the park where his son ended his life. Reinscheid, who is being held without bail, is said to have used a variety of objects to start the fires: newspaper, fireplace logs, brush and vegetation, a book, a plastic porch chair.

The stakes are high for Reinscheid, who moved to the U.S. from Germany in 1999. He is charged with a range of arson-related felony counts that could add up to a maximum sentence of more than 24 years in prison. (He does not face any charges related to the drafted emails, only one of which was sent.)

In the two-day court hearing this week, the professor sat quietly in the courtroom while Katz laid out his case that there is enough evidence to proceed to trial on the arson charges. The bespectacled 49-year-old Reinscheid, whose brown hair is slightly spiked, was clad in black glasses and an orange jail jumpsuit. He has pleaded not guilty to setting nine fires and one attempted fire.

Reinscheid's attorney, Ron Cordova, says his client, who was clearly distraught over the death of his son, did not intend to carry out anything he wrote about in the mails.

“They were symbolic acts. They were nothing more or nothing less. He was crying out,” Cordova told The Daily Beast. “He was anguished. I am suggesting we need to take a look at ourselves—how do you punish this and to what degree? He has contributed so much to society. He has made discoveries that have led to great benefits for all mankind.”

Cordova says that his client will most likely be deported if he is found guilty of the charges. “Are we going to measure the man’s worth and determine his future on one series of events which were triggered by a very provocative event—the suicide of his 14-year old son?”

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Authorities see the acts differently. Reinscheid’s state of mind and his intentions when he sent the emails will be at the crux of the jury case.

The first email, sent to his wife on April 26, states, “I have made a number of plans.” It then outlines plans to torture and murder the assistant principal, “accomplish a firestorm that destroys every single building” at University High School, and commit suicide in “the same way and the same place” as his son.

In another email addressed to 10 of Reinscheid’s friends but not sent, he asks the group to kill the assistant principal and another school employee. “They both need to suffer before they die, make sure it will be painful before they die, please!” He concludes the email by stating that: “I have tried to burn down [the assistant principal’s] house and the fucking school, but I was not strong enough, I tried multiple times but I failed.”

In another email addressed to himself on April 28, Reinscheid writes in great detail how he “will violently rape his therapist, torture and murder his late son’s teacher,” according to court documents, and use “machine guns” to kill the assistant principal and “at least 200 students before killing himself.”

Reinscheid’s case hit the news partly because at the time of the arrest he was working as an associate professor of pharmaceutical services at University of California Irvine, with joint appointments to the university's biological sciences department and medical school. His research field includes the study of psychiatric disorders, stress, emotional behavior, sleep and wakefulnesss, and memory functions.

Reinscheid co-authored a 2008 study that focused on the brain mechanism that switches off traumatic thoughts linked with bad memories. The study sought to find a drug to treat people who suffer from post-traumatic stress and other panic disorders.

On the day of his re-arrest on July 27, detectives found a will and later a document giving his wife power of attorney over his finances.

Police also say Reinscheid used the Internet to locate the home address of the assistant principal as well as information about auto explosions, guns, and purchasing weapons, explosives, ammunition, and fertilizers. Police say they have video surveillance of Reinscheid purchasing fireplace logs and found a receipt in his trash that showed that he had bought fire logs and lighter fluid at a store in Costa Mesa. Police also say that they have a witness who saw a gray Mercedes Benz similar to the one owned by Reinscheid leaving the scene of one of the school fires around 1 a.m. 

Detectives also spoke to his wife, who told them that her husband was “extremely saddened and depressed” over the loss of his son.

“She indicated that both the defendant and her were disappointed in the handling of a discipline issue at the high school involving the late son,” said Irvine Police Department detective Barry Miller. “They both felt there was responsibility on the part of the school.”

Now the professor's fate goes to a jury—the judge ruled in favor of a trial.