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Why Did This Distinguished University Professor Go On A Three-Week Arson Spree?

In the aftermath of his son's suicide, Rainer Klaus Reinscheid, 49, tried to set a park, a high school, and a vice principal's house on fire. Last week he was sentenced to 14 years in prison for his arson attempts. Was he driven by grief or revenge?

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COSTA MESA, Calif. — The passing motorist threw his car into park and rushed up to the house to alert whoever was inside that their porch was on fire. It was a little after midnight on July 5, 2012, and Michael Georgino, a vice principal at University High in Irvine, answered the frantic door knocking; he, his wife, and their two infant daughters had been deep asleep after an Independence Day celebration earlier in the evening. Georgino scrambled for a fire extinguisher and put out the flames that had melted a plastic patio chair and hosed down a pair of his running shoes that were also set ablaze. He later learned that Mason Park, the small wooded forest area next to University High's campus, was set on fire the same night as the attempted arson on his family's home.

Mason Park was not neutral territory. Three months earlier, in the spring of 2012, a University High student was found dead in Mason Park, having hanged himself with a hooded sweatshirt. Georgino was the last person to see that student alive.

One week after the initial fire, Georgino was awakened again, this time by a panicked phone call from a neighbor who said she smelled smoke coming from his house. Georgino came outside and found a smoldering book in his front yard. Given that both fires were set in the middle of the night while his whole family slept, Georgino was convinced that he and his family were being targeted by an arsonist while they were at their most vulnerable.

Over the next week, small fires broke out in Mason Park and on the University High campus during the wee morning hours. Some of the fires were set using accelerants like books or drugstore-purchased Char-King fire logs. None of the fires were very large or caused any injury or great damage — but they kept happening.

On July 19, Georgino and his family were spending the night away from home. At 2 a.m., he answered a call from the Costa Mesa Fire Department. There had been a third arson attempt on his house.

On July 25, police found Rainer Klaus Reinscheid, a 49-year-old psychopharmacology professor at nearby UC Irvine, lurking around the park's bushes. Reinscheid was the father of Claas Stubbe, the 14-year-old who hanged himself in Mason Park that March. When the police searched Reinscheid, they found a container of lighter fluid; he was arrested but released on $50,000 bail. Two nights later, Reinscheid sent the following email to eight people, whom he called "the wonderful women in my life":

"I can't suffer without him any more. I will follow my son in his most gracious way. Remember who hurt him the most: Make sure you will kill Michael Georgino (Assistant Principal at Uni High who sent him to his death!!!) and [Claas' first grade teacher] (who destroyed his faith n the goodness of people!!!) before you take your own life. They both need to suffer before they die, make sure it will be painful before they die, please. I have tried to burn down Georgino's house and the fucking school, but I was not strong enough, I tried multiple times but I failed. Make sure they will pay for that they have done. Then you can follow me and my son."

At his sentencing hearing last week, 30 of Reinscheid's colleagues and graduate students spoke on the professor's behalf. Several described the German national as a "brilliant scientist" and "devoted father." Reinscheid's supervisor, Robert Chamberlain, the chairman of UCI's pharmaceutical sciences department, read glowing evaluations from Reinscheid's students. He added, "Based on the man I know, crimes like these are entirely out of character." A jailhouse chaplain who tends to prisoners' religious needs came to court for the first time in his career to testify that he could not think of anyone that he personally "hoped would be released from incarceration more than my hope is in this regard for Rainer."

But Georgino told the judge that he and his family lived in a "state of terror" because of Reinscheid: "Did [Reinscheid] watch us during the day?" Georgino asked. "Did he follow our nanny to the park? Was he trying to smoke us out of our house to shoot us? Would he hire some one else to act on his behalf?"

During a search warrant on Reinscheid's home, police found receipts for Char-King fire logs, lighter fluid, and a series of unsent emails that detailed Reinscheid's plans for purchasing machine guns, killing 200 University High students, violently sexually assaulting his son's first-grade teacher, and making Georgino suffer before he killed him. Reinscheid's defense attorneys claimed the drafts were journal entries, musings, or fantasies, but he still pleaded guilty to nine felony counts of attempted arson.

Speaking through sobs and in a whisper-quiet voice, Reinscheid pleaded for leniency: "I was so guilt-ridden by the loss of my son Claas that my grief was unfairly transferred into frustration with the school and Michael Georgino." Reinscheid then apologized to Georgino and his family.

"My irrational thoughts and frustration are gone,'' Reinscheid said. "I lost my son and then I lost myself. Now I am asking you and so many others to give me and show me mercy.'' He added, "I only blame myself for Claas' death. I failed him."

Fire is an unpredictable weapon, but there are only a few logical conclusions for a fire once it is set, Deputy District Attorney Andrew Katz argued: the destruction of anything in the fire's path or the fire being extinguished by authorities. Reinscheid's "lousy" arson skills should not mitigate his malicious intent, Katz added. Though Reinscheid's fires were small, Katz said his intent was clear: 1) to do great bodily harm to Georgino and his family and 2) to cause "catastrophic damage" to University High.

However, a psychological expert for the defense argued that given Reinscheid's education and access to combustible materials (through his lab at UCI), "he certainly could have caused mass damage" but chose not to. "It is my opinion," Dr. Veronica Thomas wrote to the judge, "that he was engaging in these illegal behaviors as a pressure reduction," not because Reinscheid meant to do any real harm. Instead the fires were "mood-regulating" exercises. She went on, "He has spent a lifetime adjusting to his own developmental impairments by being emotionally aloof, and it tragically contributed to the loss of his beloved first son." Reinscheid, Thomas said, "completely unraveled psychically" and experienced a "psychotic level of functioning."

Claas Stubbe, age 13.
Via Facebook: ClassStubbe

Claas Stubbe, age 13.

Triggering Event

It was the fall of 2011, and Claas Stubbe was not adjusting well to University High. His parents worried that their son, whom his stepmother described as "shy, sensitive, and insecure," was growing depressed and isolated at a school hailed for its competitiveness. Claas had struggled with teachers and schoolwork since elementary school after an incident in which Claas' first-grade teacher, whom his father described in an email as the person who "destroyed Claas' faith in the goodness of people," excluded Claas from participating in a school pageant because of his poor behavior. Since then, Claas had not enjoyed attending school.

Reinscheid took his moody and distracted son to doctors who diagnosed the boy with ADHD and possibly mild autism. One doctor said it would take Claas eight to nine years of intense work to catch up with his peers.

Claas spent his Saturdays attending German school so he could attend college in Germany as his father did. But still, Claas struggled, and returned one day from junior high with a backpack full of "pink slips" from teachers for his missed homework assignments. Reinscheid hired tutors, enrolled Claas in homework club, and met repeatedly with teachers and administrators in failed attempts to help his son succeed academically.

According to Reinscheid's wife and Claas' stepmother, Wendy Wei, Claas became deeply distraught when his father forbade him from taking American Sign Language for his language requirement at University High, forcing him to enroll in Spanish instead because ASL did not meet German college requirements. In protest, Claas refused to study or do any work for his Spanish class. Two weeks before his death, Claas brought home a report card showing that he was failing two courses. One was Spanish.

"My husband is not perfect," Wei told the judge. "He is traditional, strict, and he made mistakes along the way." Wei said that her husband "blamed himself every day for having high expectations" and "not letting Claas be whoever he was."

On March 13, 2012, Claas was caught stealing a candy bar from the student store at University High. He was called into Vice Principal Michael Georgino's office. "I told Claas that I would need to call his father and he became visibly distraught," Georgino told the judge. Claas begged for Georgino not to call his dad. Georgino left a message for Reinscheid about the incident and then "lightly disciplined" Claas by assigning him three days of trash pickup during his lunch break.

Claas had once been given trash duty in elementary school as punishment, Wei testified. He was then teased by classmates who called him "trash boy."

Instead of going back to his classroom after Georgino called home, Claas fled school and went into the wooded park by campus. When Claas did not come home that afternoon, his parents thought he might be hiding somewhere because he was embarrassed about his punishment. Claas had refused to come home twice before and hid from his parents in a nearby wildlife preserve because he was distraught. Around 9 p.m., Reinscheid texted his son, "Claas I found your backpack and your bike, it's ok, PLEASE COME HOME NOW—Papa."

The Orange County Register, Sam Gangwer / AP

"The Next Columbine"

In the days following his son's suicide, Reinscheid chastised his son's teachers and demanded that they not say his son's name after his suicide. There were to be no memorials, no grief counselors, no mention of Claas' death. Reinscheid sought counseling but refused to take anti-depressants to cope with his son's suicide — he told doctors he knew what went into anti-depressants.

Reinscheid held half a dozen patents through his research into the neuroscience behind fear, pain, and anxiety, and came up with his own treatment regime: two bottles of wine and 100 milligrams of Modalfini, a prescription-only drug that increases wakefulness in those suffering from hypersomnia and narcolepsy. In the weeks following Claas' death, he would drink, go out driving, and visit the park where Claas died; he told his wife he thought Claas would come back if he waited long enough. Other nights Reinscheid would just black out and wake up in his car.

"I'm legally drunk, working on my second bottle of wine, but I am still not tired," Reinscheid wrote in an unsent email on April 28, 2012. "This medicine is good!" He went on:

"I have dreams about going to Uni High and setting the place on fire, burning down every single building and then killing myself in the same place where Claas died. I am thinking about getting a dozen machine guns, then going to the school and shooting that asshole vice-principal, then the principal and that stupid counselor lady, but I will stick the gun inside her pussy before I pull the trigger, she deserves it. Then I will shoot at least 200 students before killing myself…"

Another unsent email from the same week discovered through a search warrant after his arrest stated:

"I will find this vice-principal and find out where he lives, then I will wait for him and kill him. I will force him to tie a rope around his neck and if he is too coward, I will do it for him, in front of his wife and children. I will make him cry and beg, but I will not give him a chance, just like he did to Claas. I will make him die slowly, surely. I know you agree that he deserves it. Next I will set fire to Uni High and try to burn down as much as I can, there should be nothing left that gives them reason to continue their miserable school that goes over dead bodies, only to save their scores."

When police searched his home, they found 64 searches for Georgino's home address and 40 searches regarding gun laws and gun purchases in Reinscheid's web browser history. Reinscheid's unsent emails went public earlier this year, causing further outrage in the town.

At Reinscheid's sentencing hearing, John Perhson, the principal of University of High School, described the "anxiety, fear, and uneasiness" of the school's community at large. "To date, we have had four school-wide lockdowns this year, two of which from false alarms due to people being extremely sensitive and wary. This is not the kind of learning environment I want for students and staff."

Pershon and other teachers from University High argued Reinscheid should be detained for as long as the law would allow.

The Orange County Register, Mindy Schauer, Pool / AP

Punishment to fit the crime or the criminal?

Over a three-day sentencing hearing, Judge George Prickett weighed whether to send Reinscheid to prison for 3 to 18 years — or any amount in between. Reinscheid's attorneys argued that he slipped into a psychotic depression in the aftermath of his son's suicide. And while his emails were disturbing, they were never directly communicated to the potential victims. Additionally, none of the fires ever did more than char some property and black some vegetation. Ultimately the grieving professor injured no one.

In her sentencing report presented to Prickett, the defense expert who diagnosed Reinscheid with major depressive disorder, bipolar II, and narcissistic personality disorder while he was in custody wrote the following:

"It is my opinion that the defendant does not represent a present threat to specific or random individuals in the community. His writings are bizarre, violent, destructive and hostile. However, they were not communicated or followed up on by the defendant with the alleged victims or community. Unsent writings do give insight into a person's state of mind but do not indicate immediate danger or threat."

Prosecutors said his arrest prevented the next Columbine or Aurora.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," Deputy District Attorney Katz Andrew argued. Reinscheid did "follow up" on his unsent threats by setting fires, and given his use of logs and lighter fluid, he was "getting bolder and more sophisticated in his fire setting behavior" before police stopped him. "We must not overlook the critical fact that the defendant never stopped his arson vendetta," Katz told Judge Prickett.

Additionally, Katz dismissed the notion that Reinscheid was psychotic when he composed the unsent emails or tried to set the fires, since Reinscheid successfully taught a college course at UC Irvine during the same time period. He had also traveled without incident to Singapore for a professional conference.

Daniel Leib, Reinscheid's attorney, urged the judge to consider the offender — not just apply a "mechanistic" sentence based on his crimes. Reinscheid, who "contributed to humanity" through his academic research, found Jesus in jail, swore to his two remaining children he would endure for their behalf, and promised the court he would return to Germany if released. He would have a great potential for success in his post-incarceration life, Leib told the judge.

Katz countered that Schneider's high-level intelligence and high professional standing demanded he be held to a higher standard "because he really does know better." Katz added, "More than the average person, he understood the consequences to his actions."

The judge sentenced Reinscheid to 14 years and four months in prison.

"There is nothing to celebrate," one teacher from University High said as the crowd exited the courtroom.