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12.31.11

Los Angeles Fires: Officials Race to Identify the Arsonist

As cars and homes continue to ignite, officials are racing to figure out who is behind the worst arson epidemic in recent Los Angeles history. Christine Pelisek on the latest leads.

As revelers across the country prepare to ring in the New Year with fireworks and explosions, residents of Los Angeles have been besieged by a series of pyrotechnics of their own. In a series of early-morning arson attacks, more than 39 fires have been set here in the last four days, making it one of the worst arson rampages in the city's history.

"This morning when I got an early call I felt like I was in a movie scene,'' Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge said at a Friday news conference. "Fire trucks were racing all over Hollywood. [There was] noise of helicopters in the sky and then people displaced on the sidewalks. That's not what we want to happen on New Year's.''

Los Angeles arson investigators are trying to unravel the motive behind the mysterious fires. Residents are on edge, helicopters buzz overhead everywhere you look, and police are on citywide tactical alert.

Even so, police and fire officials say they are not sure if they are dealing with one arsonist or many.

“It will be interesting to see what the motive is behind this,” said Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Jamie Moore. “There are a lot of reasons why people start fires. Some people do it out of spite or malice. Others do it out of recognition. Others do it as a crime cover-up. Some do it for financial gain, and there are always those who have a psychological problem where they get a form of self-gratification from it.”

Regardless, he says, this arsonist's intent is “to create as much havoc as they can…If you have a group of people in a small area and they are in fear of going to bed tonight, to me that is havoc and they are terrorizing the individuals.”

"We want to get these SOBs before they hurt somebody."

Most of the fires have begun in cars sitting in open-air garages beneath upstairs residential units. However, in several instances the flames have spread to nearby apartment buildings or single-family homes, many of which were built as far back as the 1920s. One of the fires damaged the former Hollywood Hills home of Doors' frontman Jim Morrison, who wrote the song ''Love Street'' about the house he lived in with girlfriend Pam Courson back in the 1960s.

Investigators, Moore said, believe the fires on Friday and Saturday mornings are similar in nature, and are interviewing victims and people in the neighborhood to try to identify a pattern. “Do they all work in the Hollywood movie industry?” he asked rhetorically. “They are trying to figure out the correlation.”

So far, they have no suspects.

Moore said the city’s 18 arson investigators are working on the case with help from the ATF, the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s bomb squad, and the Los Angeles Police Department’s major-crimes task force and homicide detectives.

The only clue so far has come from the police who have said they are looking for a male driving a white-and-tan mid-1990s Lexus ES300. However, fire-department officials aren't sure where the police got that information. Local media has also reported that the suspected arsonist is using some kind of Molotov cocktail to smash through the cars' windows. But fire-department officials are not saying what they suspect the arsonist is using to ignite the fires.

"We are dead serious about trying to apprehend the individual or individuals who are responsible for this,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said at the Friday news conference. We want to get these SOBs before they hurt somebody. One of these fires was just less than three blocks from my own home.''

It all began just after midnight on Thursday near La Brea Avenue and Sunset Boulevard when a garbage can outside a 7-Eleven was set ablaze. Police later arrested 22-year-old Samuel Arrington as he was attempting to torch a fuel tank on a pressure washer. Police suspected that Arrington was also involved in a trash-bin fire and a nearby carport fire where four vehicles and an apartment were damaged along a five-block stretch of Sunset Boulevard. He was booked on suspicion of attempted arson, and was thrown in jail in lieu of $75,000 bail.

As Arrington sat in his jail cell, the next night, 17 cars and small trucks were set ablaze in Hollywood and West Hollywood. Most of the cars were set afire in carports or underground parking structures. Some of the flames ignited nearby homes, including Morrison’s former $1.19 million Hollywood Hills home built in 1922. All of the Friday fires, which began after midnight, occurred within a two-square-mile radius in an area filled with sleeping residents. Interestingly, one of the three of Arrington’s fires was similar to the new set of fires, said Moore. But, said Moore, “the kid is still in jail,” and “There is no indication that he had a partner.”

Later that morning, at 4:20, the Los Angeles Police Department broadcast a declaration of a tactical alert, warning residents of Hollywood to be on the lookout for an arsonist. The broadcast was relayed in a phone message that stated: “This is an emergency message from the Los Angeles Police Department. In the past three hours LAPD Hollywood Division has had approximately 11 suspicious vehicle fires.”

Nine minutes after the tactical alert was broadcast, police arrested Alejandro Pineda for starting a rubbish fire in the same area as the other attacks. He was booked for arson of property and is being held in lieu of $50,000 bail. It is unclear if police believe Pineda was responsible for any of the Friday-night fires.

By the time most residents woke up, the number of fires had risen to 21. Los Angeles County Fire Department said that the four fires set in West Hollywood alone destroyed about $350,000 worth of cars and property.

One firefighter was injured while fighting one of the blazes and taken to a local hospital.

“Our firefighters are very aggressive and they are minimizing the structural damages to the homes,” said Moore. “That is what is saving everyone’s lives.”

On Friday afternoon, fire and police officials and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa held a press conference at a fire station in Hollywood, announcing a $60,000 reward asking for any information leading to the arrest of the culprit or culprits, and promising to beef up patrols in Hollywood.

Three hours after the press conference, another car fire was reported in an underground garage in Hollywood, and fire officials were investigating for possible links.

Then, again, starting just after midnight, nine additional fires were set on Saturday morning, destroying around 14 vehicles and scorching some apartment buildings in North Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley, the Wilshire district of Los Angeles, L.A.'s Westside, and the nearby city of Lennox. The fires looked to be the same as the ones in Hollywood but were spread out over a larger area.

That night, police detained a number of people, but are not saying if they are connected or not to the recent string of fiery vandalism.

Seven additional arson fires were set on New Year's Eve, including one in a huge parking structure at Hollywood and Highland, the home of the Academy Awards. At that location, video cameras may have captured the image of the elusive arsonist, who police are now describing as a white male in his mid-30s with a receding hairline and ponytail.

“I can’t wait to haul this person off to jail,” said Moore. “It is senseless and I don’t want to report we have an injury to a civilian or, God forbid, a fatality."

“I think he knows he is doing this to a lot of people,” he added. “To be doing this two nights in a row, the second night following a press conference with fire chiefs from two different agencies, law enforcement, and the mayors of two major cities telling you to stop. They have to be deriving some sick pleasure from it. They didn’t stop, and we need to find a way to stop it.”