A 56-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of arson in connection with a fire that destroyed a downtown Los Angeles apartment complex last year, causing tens of millions of dollars in damage to the unfinished structure and a nearby city-owned building, authorities said Wednesday.
Dawud Abdulwali was detained Tuesday morning by the Los Angeles Police Department’s anti-terrorism division on a traffic violation and later booked on suspicion of arson of a structure and aggravated arson. He is being held on more than $1-million bail and is expected to be formally charged Thursday, according to a spokesman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.
“This arrest illustrates that crime will not be tolerated in Los Angeles,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a news conference Wednesday outside City Hall. “We will arrest you. We will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.”
Abdulwali’s arrest followed an intense investigation that began even before firefighters fully extinguished the Dec. 8 blaze at the seven-story Da Vinci complex. The speed of the fire, which broke out about 1:20 a.m. and soon engulfed the mostly wooden structure, raised suspicion from the outset.
Investigators combed through 75,000 square feet of debris and spent thousands of hours gathering evidence to zero in on Abdulwali, said Carlos Canino, the special agent in charge of the L.A. office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Officials were tight-lipped about what may have motivated the setting of the fire. Saying they did not want to jeopardize the prosecution’s case, investigators did not reveal what led them to Abdulwali or what allegedly tied him to the blaze.
Little is known of Abdulwali, who may have used the alias Timothy Roston. Abdulwali rented a back room in a South L.A. house, according to his landlord, Poleth Chavez. In December, about the time of the fire, he paid two months’ rent upfront and left, saying he was heading to San Francisco, Chavez said.
“He's pretty quiet. He keeps to himself,” Chavez said about her tenant.
Canino said Abdulwali has no known history of arson convictions. Investigators did not find a connection between him and the Da Vinci apartment complex, but asserted that Abdulwali was the sole suspect.
“There’s all sorts of technology out there available to use that we can exploit and, couple that with old-fashioned police work, wearing out the shoe leather, and that’s how we came to be here today,” Canino said. “All of the evidence that we have right now points to this person as a suspect.”
Surveillance video gathered by investigators shows a man parking his vehicle on the 110 Freeway and walking into the apartment building with cans of fuel, according to a fire official who spoke in March to an Echo Park community group. Canino declined to comment on whether Abdulwali was the man seen in the video.
Authorities had previously released images that show two men near the apartment complex around the time of the blaze. One is seen walking by the building before the fire started. The second is seen trying to climb a fence to get into the already-burning building and had to be blocked by firefighters. Neither has been publicly identified. Both are now considered witnesses in the case, Canino said.
Abdulwali was identified without utilizing the tips that poured in after a massive reward was offered in the case, Garcetti said. At one point, the reward climbed to $170,000.
The fire caused $20 million to $30 million in damage to the apartment complex and more than $50 million in damage to a nearby city-owned building, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department.
Because of the sizable monetary damage, Abdulwali faces up to life in prison if convicted of all charges.
Times staff writer Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.