A security camera captured the taxi making two stops, minutes apart, parking on the freeway shoulder in downtown Los Angeles. Each time, the driver's door opened and a man got out, jumped a low fence and disappeared into the sprawling construction site of the Da Vinci apartments complex.
The second time he returned to his cab and drove off, the video showed a glow of flames from the unfinished building.
The video recording, described by a source who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the fire, was a key piece of evidence in the investigation into the blaze that destroyed a half-built structure at the Da Vinci late last year and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage.
On Thursday, prosecutors charged Dawud Abdulwali, 56, with arson of a structure and aggravated arson in connection with the fire. He pleaded not guilty at a brief arraignment.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Carney urged the judge at the hearing to set a high bail, saying Abdulwali had traveled abroad twice since the fire and had a lengthy criminal history that included theft, fraud, battery and assault.
"He's not just a flight risk, he's a danger to the community," Carney said in court. "This isn't your normal arson."
Abdulwali remained in custody after the judge set his bail at $1 million. He faces up to life in prison if convicted, the district attorney's office said.
Prosecutors allege that Abdulwali used an accelerant on the fourth floor of the seven-story apartment building that hugged the Harbor Freeway and covered a full city block. No injuries were reported, but the Dec. 8 fire gutted the partially built structure and damaged a nearby city building. Flames rose several stories and sent up a massive plume of smoke that could be seen across the city. The heat from the fire melted signs on the freeway.
Officials said the fire caused between $20 million and $30 million in damage to the apartment development and more than $50 million in damage to the city building.
Authorities declined to detail how they identified Abdulwali as a suspect but expressed confidence that he acted alone. An "electronic trail" ultimately led Los Angeles police to the man, said a second source, who also requested his name not be used because of the ongoing investigation.
"You can't walk outside your house these days without leaving a trail," said the source.
The second source confirmed the general contents of the video showing a man getting out of the taxi on the side of the freeway and hopping the fence that surrounded the development project. The fire erupted and spread so quickly as the man in the video left the scene that authorities checked nearby hospitals for people who had walked in with burn injuries, the source said.
None of the evidence collected, however, has helped officials understand a possible motive for setting the blaze, the source said. Abdulwali appeared to have no connection to the developer building the apartments, and had never worked on the site, nor lived nearby, authorities said.
For the last eight months or so, he paid $450 a month to rent a room in the back of a house on East 73rd Street that Poleth Chavez, 25, shares with her mom and brother.
Chavez said Abdulwali drove an independent taxi for the first few months he lived there, but then she noticed "his cab just out of nowhere disappeared." The city had no record of Abdulwali being licensed to drive a taxi.
A telephone number Abdulwali gave Chavez matched the number included in an online ad posted in early February by someone identified only as "D." The seller was offering a "2005 Crown Victoria (Taxi) — $1500 (South Los Angeles)."
A few months ago, Abdulwali told the family he planned to move out in May, but then "told us last-minute he wasn't going to move out," Chavez said. She added that she hadn't seen Abdulwali in more than two weeks.
Federal agents and LAPD officers descended on the home late Thursday to search the back room Abdulwali rented. Among the items investigators were looking for were "documents associated with anti-establishment, anti-gentrification, anti-police or anti-government activities," according to a search warrant reviewed by The Times.
Chavez said authorities removed electronic devices, including cellphones and computer equipment.
This week's arrest was the latest in a string of legal run-ins for Abdulwali, who has also used the name Timothy Roston, authorities said.
In 1996, a Timothy Roston with the same date of birth was charged in Arizona with fraud, aggravated assault and theft. He pleaded guilty to the fraud charge, a felony, and was sentenced to five years in state prison, a Maricopa County district attorney's spokesman said. Online Arizona prison records later identified the man serving time in the case not as Roston but as Dawud A. Wali. Los Angeles investigators believe he may have legally changed his name to Abdulwali, authorities said.
In 2012, three creditors looked to a Nevada bankruptcy judge for help recouping what they said were more than $55,000 in debts owed by Abdulwali.
The same year, he failed to appear in Los Angeles County Superior County for eviction proceedings brought by the management company of a Mid-City commercial property he rented. A judge ordered him to pay the company $8,356 in back rent, damages and attorney fees and to vacate the property, according to court documents.
In September 2012, Los Angeles prosecutors filed charges of sexual assault against Abdulwali, accusing him of raping and imprisoning a woman, records show. The charges were dropped about a month later.
Times staff writers Victoria Kim, Kate Mather, Stephen Ceasar, Marisa Gerber and Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.