Guard Is Arrested in Universal Studios Fire

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

A Universal Studios security guard who had been on the job less than two months was arrested Wednesday in the multimillion-dollar arson fire that gutted part of the historic studio's back lot, authorities said.

The blaze destroyed sets used in such pictures as "Dick Tracy" and "The Sting" and delayed production of the latest Sylvester Stallone film.

Michael J. Huston, 40, of Tujunga was booked on suspicion of arson at 4 a.m. Wednesday after discrepancies arose in his answers to fire investigators' questions, arson experts said.

Huston, an employee of Burns International Security Services, which contracts to provide security for the studio, was on duty when the fire broke out shortly after 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Authorities had no immediate comment on a motive for the fire.

The suspect's half brother described him as a mentally disabled Army veteran who was incapable of such a crime.

But Huston's grandmother later told a local television station that the suspect told her, "I did it."

Universal officials said 20% of the sets on the sprawling, 420-acre lot--also a popular tourist attraction--were destroyed in the stubborn, wind-whipped blaze. Most of the damage was to wooden facades that burned like matchboxes, Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesmen said.

It took 400 Los Angeles city and county firefighters nearly three hours to extinguish the blaze, which offered an eerie sideshow to Republican Party election-night festivities held at the nearby Universal City Hilton hotel. Firefighters even used water from the studio's Red Sea tour attraction to douse the flames.

Despite the fire--and, in some cases, because of it--tourists flocked to Universal Studios on Wednesday to take the trams that guide visitors by sets that have formed the backdrop of movie classics for decades.

On Wednesday's excursions, tourists could see rubble of what used to be sets from "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Sting" and "Dick Tracy."

Universal officials said the most serious damage was concentrated on several outdoor sets, including the two-block-long New York Street, Sting Alley, Georgetown Avenue, Warehouse Street and Brownstone Street.

Dan Slusser, general manager of Universal Studios, said it would take about six months to rebuild the sets. He said an estimate of the damage, which parent company MCA said is covered by insurance, would not be available for a couple of days but would be in the "millions, not the hundreds of millions."

The fire also interrupted production of the John Landis-directed movie "Oscar," a comedy starring Stallone, which had been shooting on the back lot only hours before the fire broke out.

The movie's publicist, Spooky Stevens, said the entire set was lost, forcing the crew to shut down production for up to 10 days while looking for a new location to shoot outdoor scenes.

"It's a nightmare, but it's not an impossible nightmare," she said. "We've lost a lot of our wardrobe, all the camera equipment, 21 vintage cars and all of our props."

Replacing costumes and props is complicated, she said, because the film is a period piece, set in 1931, with Stallone playing a gangster who tries to go straight.

Stevens said the production crew had started shooting on the outdoor set last Thursday and had only four or five more days of filming scheduled.

A temporary casualty was the King Kong exhibit, part of Universal's popular studio tour. It was closed Wednesday, but damage turned out to be less than originally believed, studio officials said.

Fire burned the wooden exterior of the building that houses King Kong, but water sprinklers were activated by the heat and helped to save the giant mechanical ape and the computers that operate him.

"Kong lives," said Ron Bension, president of Universal Studios-Hollywood.

None of the sound stages where many television shows and movies are produced were damaged, Universal officials said.

Fire investigators declined to release further details of their probe into the cause of the fire.

Sgt. Dale Underwood of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's arson unit said the security guard was questioned as a matter of routine, but his statements immediately raised flags.

"In a situation like that you talk to everybody who might know something," Underwood said. "We are confident we have enough evidence to arrest and file on him."

Huston was jailed in lieu of $1 million bail.

William Ewing, president of the Western states unit of Burns International Security Services, said, "We are all saddened as a result of this fire and arrest of one of our security officers. Burns International is cooperating fully with law enforcement authorities."

Robert Dragusica, 22, who said he is Huston's half brother, was reached at the family's home in Tujunga on Wednesday afternoon. He said Huston has been mentally disabled since serving in the Army in Vietnam in 1969.

Dragusica said that while it is unlikely his brother would have intentionally started the fire, his mental condition might have led him to confess to something he did not do.

"He didn't do it," Dragusica said. "I know my brother and he would not want to harm anybody or hurt anything. The guy has problems. He is mentally disabled and hadn't worked a job for 10 years before this. Now they are putting this on him. All I can say is that if he did it, it was an accident."

Dragusica said his brother has seen a psychiatrist regularly for seven years and has often sought help from the Veterans Administration.

Huston's grandmother, Dorothy Montanari, told KCAL, Channel 9, news that her grandson confessed to her.

"He just said 'I did it,' and he said you saw the fire on TV; 'I did it and I'm going to jail,' " Montanari said. "I just couldn't believe it. And he said 'I love you,' and I said I love you and will help you as much as I can."

Residents along the quiet Tujunga street of small homes, owned mostly by retired people, described Huston as a good neighbor who often volunteered to help others with household chores.

One neighbor said the suspect worked odd jobs, such as painting and lawn care, in the Tujunga area until taking the job as a security guard with Burns about two months ago.

"He told me he worked at Universal," said the neighbor, George Fluman. "He just said he was a guard there. I saw him go to work in his uniform in the mornings."

Huston, who is not married and lives with his mother and half brother, once told Fluman that he received a disability pension for a respiratory ailment he suffered while in the military. The neighbor expressed shock when told of Huston's arrest.

"I just don't believe that," Fluman said. "I know him real well. He is a great neighbor. I'd trust him with my bottom dollar."

Times staff writers Greg Braxton, David J. Fox, Chuck Philips and Sebastian Rotella contributed to this story.

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