How CAA’s Matt Blake, Head of Comedy Touring, Helped Capture The Palisades Fire Arson Suspect

Palisades Fire
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The Palisades wildfire burns out of control in rugged terrain near homes above Topanga Canyon on Saturday, May 15, 2021 in Los Angeles.

With last week’s 1,200-acre Pacific Palisades fire in Los Angeles now under control, Pollstar has learned that Matt Blake, CAA’s Head of Comedy Touring, played a critical role in identifying, detaining and helping law enforcement arrest the alleged arsonist behind the conflagration. In fact, without Blake, and others in the senior agent’s Palisades Highlands community, the accused could have continued to elude law enforcement and set more than the half dozen fires he is accused of starting in the Santa Monica Mountain National Recreation Area between May 14 and his arrest on the afternoon of May 16.

On Tuesday, the suspect, identified as Ramon Santos Rodriguez,  a 48-years old transient, was charged with one felony count each of arson of a structure or forest and arson during a state of emergency, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

“The LAFD Arson Counterterrorism Section, along with LAFD, have aggressively pursued all tips and all leads,” said Los Angeles Fire Chief Terrazas upon Rodriguez’s  arrest. “I want to (give) a special thank you to the community that provided us those tips and leads. We have to work together as a community.” The L.A. Fire Chief, could have been speaking directly to Blake and his neighbors who banded together as a community to locate and help capture the alleged arsonist who had set fires over the course of the previous 36 hours.

Palisades Fire
(Photo by Matt Blake)

The Palisades Fire spread out across the Santa Monica Mountains.

“I went to bed Friday night around 10:00 p.m. and saw the red lights flashing and heard trucks going by,” Blake tell Pollstar. “I put on my security cameras and saw fire trucks racing in front of my house going like 70 miles an hour on our residential street. I called my neighbor, went outside and down the street. When we went around the bend, the sky’s lit up in orange and the foothills were on fire. We’re in the Highlands and there’s several thousand residents up here surrounded by parkland that’s filled with brush and overgrown bushes that are fuel for fire. The good news is the weather was moist and damp and there was no wind blowing, so if there was going to be a fire, it was the perfect time and that brought us some solace. We went down the street and could see what looked like a couple of different fires, but there was so much activity and helicopters were already  dropping water. We went to bed that night feeling we would not be evacuated.”

The next morning, Saturday, Blake went mountain biking as he does regularly and where he had a better vantage point of the fires. There, he could see something suspicious in the fire’s proliferation. “I rode around the whole fire looking down on it and one thing that was fascinating was there was a fire over here, and it’s moist and damp with little wind, and then way over there there’s another fire burning. I saw a fireman guiding the helicopters and I asked him, ‘How’s there a fire over there?’ And he says, ‘There’s a guy down there lighting fires and that’s an LAPD helicopter above watching him.”

Later in the day, Blake met a sheriff’s deputy who told him the suspect was wearing a blue shirt which the helicopter had reported. “I heard they brought in a sheriff’s SWAT team with the helicopter that could drop down and get the guy. But he was lighting fires under the helicopter and running back to areas under tree cover and got away. Friday night he had lit four fires. Saturday, he lit at least two fires, I was told. It was probably more.”

On Sunday morning, Blake, who is the board president of his Homeowners Association, got a message that would change everything. “I got a text just before 11:00 AM from Bruce Schwartz who is on the Pacific Palisades Task Force for Homelessness with the description he got from Captain Tom of the LAPD who oversees the West L.A. Division, information he would file away for later. 

Matt Blake
Courtesy CAA

CAA’s Matt Blake, Head of Comedy Touring, who helped capture the accused arsonist charged with starting the Palisades Fire.

Blake, who has a wildly impressive roster of comedians, hasn’t stopped working for a second since the pandemic began and, in fact, had a business meeting that Sunday. “I had five arena tours going when COVID hit between Mike Epps, Jeff Dunham, Gabriel Iglesias, Trevor Noah, and Nick Cannon’s Wild ‘n Out,” he says. “We had to push everything from the summer and we had other projects in the works.” Blake also happens to represent an astonishing six of the ten nominees for the 2021 Pollstar Awards’ Comedy Touring Artist of The Decade in Iglesias, Dunham, Noah, Katt Williams, Michael McIntyre and Ron White—which may explain why he never stopped working even amidst a serious wildfire.

“I was driving down the street on Sunday to meet a comedian at 1:00 p.m.—less than two hours after I got the description,” Blake says. “I saw ACS, our security company, talking to somebody who fit the description. It was him. I immediately called one of my neighbors and another board member Peter Branch, and he headed down. Then I called back Bruce Schwartz who was working. He said, ‘Can I call you back?” I go, ‘No, I think I have the guy!’ I was so adrenalized at that point. What if this is the guy that lit the fire? I was supposed to meet somebody for business, but if I went he ostensibly could have left the neighborhood and gone and done this someplace else. So I thought, ‘They’re going to understand. I got to go back.’ I made a U-turn on Palisades Drive and went back up.

“At this point, I see the guy leaving ACS because ACS is a private security company and they can’t just arrest people even if they look suspicious,” Blake continues.  “I pull up behind the ACS Officer, Officer Mo, who I know from around the neighborhood and being president of the association. ACS and Officer Mo deserve a lot of credit. So I pull up behind him and go, ‘That guy fits the description of the arson suspect.’ So they jump in their cars and I see my neighbor pulling up. We all drive forward together, stop and get out and start talking to the guy. He wasn’t making much sense and we couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I knew that this was the guy, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, we got him.’”

Palisades Arson Suspect

The Palisades Fire arson suspect being approached by Palisades Highlands community members and ACS Security on May 16, 2021.

Blake says he gave the suspect a half-filled bottle of water he had in his car. “You could tell he was hurt and needed help. He’d been in the foothills for two and a half days with smoke inhalation and dehydration. At the same time this was the ‘bad guy.’  When I left, the security company was holding him and my neighbor Pete Branch was there and I was confident he wasn’t going anywhere.”

After his meeting,  Blake learned law enforcement soon arrived and had put him in an ambulance with a police officer with another following behind. “They took him to the hospital and they I.D. him, remember they had a helicopter pilot overhead watching him. He fit the description perfectly. My neighbor said they found the blue shirt a hundred yards away, which ACS secured and left where it was so police could get it without any evidence tampering. I had already spoken to a witness, one of the firefighters,  and went back to the trailhead and got the guy’s name and phone number and gave it to investigators so they had a witness.”

Blake bristles at the suggestion that he’s some kind of hero. What’s fascinating, however, is how his skills as a top agent—which is nothing if not a relationship business requiring hard-nosed and careful negotiations, aligning interests, paying attention to details, networking, communicating and team building —translated so well into the non-working world. In this case, those very skills played perfectly into capturing an arson suspect.

“I am the president of my homeowners’ association and our board is connected,” Blake says. “My neighbor is on the board and we had our board text chain going with developments throughout the whole thing. Bruce Shwartz is connected with the task force and we know each other because I went to a board meeting.” Additionally, Blake knows his local security force, and the police in his district and also interfaced with fire fighters and police enforcement throughout the fire and remained constantly informed on its status. If he hadn’t, there could have been a very different and possibly far more dangerous outcome.

“It’s just like CAA where we share information,” Blake says, “and when everyone has information, good things happen.”