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Suspect Arrested in $22-Million Library Arson

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Times Staff Writer

A 28-year-old Hollywood man was arrested late Friday afternoon as a suspect in the $22-million arson fire that swept the Los Angeles Central Library last April 29, fire officials reported.

Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Dean Cathey identified the suspect as Harry Peak and said only that he was taken into custody in the Hollywood area shortly after 4 p.m. by arson investigators.

Peak was booked at Hollywood Division Police Station for investigation of arson of a structure, Cathey said. He was being held in lieu of $250,000 bail at the Hollywood station jail.

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Cathey said he did not know where the suspect lives, precisely where he was arrested or what he does for a living. He said the arrest came as the result of a phone tip--”one of about 400 we received” when a second composite sketch was made public after the destructive fire.

“He does resemble the drawing and the description by witnesses,” Cathey said.

Capt. Tony DiDomenico, a Fire Department spokesman, said Peak was taken into custody because there were “discrepancies” in his responses when he was interviewed earlier as a result of the tip.

Cathey noted that there has been “an ongoing, intensive investigation” carried on by the Library Arson Task Force, teaming city fire investigators with agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Peak is not considered a suspect in a second blaze that struck the historic library at 5th and Flower streets last Sept. 3, Cathey said. But he declined to say why. “We’re still investigating that one,” was his only comment.

Cathey, the department’s community liaison officer, said investigators wanted to question Peak “regarding his movements on the day of the (April 29) fire.”

Peak reportedly had been under surveillance for about two days.

At a duplex in the 5600 block of La Mirada Avenue in Hollywood, where the suspect reportedly lived for a couple of months about a year ago, the current residents declined to talk about Peak.

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A next-door neighbor, who gave his name only as Pat, said he believed Peak “worked for some lawyer.” He said Peak left, “as far as I know, (to go) back East, and that’s the last I heard of him until somebody (a reporter) came by today.”

Mayor Tom Bradley, who was attending a reception for newly elected City Councilwoman Gloria Molina, congratulated the city’s Fire Department and citizens “for a job well done.” He noted that members of the public not only have joined the effort to replace more than 700,000 books destroyed in the fire, but have telephoned the hundreds of telephone tips--one of which led to the arrest of a suspect.

Shortly after the initial fire swept through the historic library, destroying hundreds of thousands of books and artworks, investigators began showing a composite sketch of an unidentified man described as “blondish” and in his late 20s or early 30s.

City Fire Chief Donald O. Manning said then that several employees had seen such a man in a restricted area near the northwest section of book stacks where the fire started. Although he was not yet considered a suspect, investigators said they wanted to question him.

A week and a half later, another drawing was released. Manning said it “closely resembled” the man being sought. Again, fire officials stressed that he was not a suspect. But Manning said, “He was in an area the public should not have been in.”

The second sketch differed from the first in that it showed a pronounced nose and a bushy mustache. The man was described as being about 6 feet 1 inch tall and weighing 160 pounds.

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Posters bearing the drawing were put up at all branch libraries and elsewhere. A $30,000 reward was offered for information leading to the arrest of a suspect.

Cathey said Friday that it was “thanks largely to the press,” which published the sketch widely, that so many citizens responded.

The second arson blaze that erupted last Sept. 3 burned books and other items in the reading room of the art and music department. The room contained sheet music, volumes and scores that were more than a century old.

The library was still closed to the public because of the April fire, and staff people had left for the day when it broke out shortly after 6 p.m.

City Librarian Wyman H. Jones called that incident “Nightmare, Part II” and said he could “not begin to put a value” on the latest loss.

$6 Million Raised

Jones was not immediately available for comment on the arrest Friday afternoon.

More than $6 million has been raised in a “Save the Books” campaign for which the target is $10 million to replace books and materials burned or water-damaged beyond repair.

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While the Community Redevelopment Agency and the city’s Library Commission wrestle with the problem of restoring and even enlarging the classic old structure at 5th and Flower streets, plans have been proceeding to house the Central Library in the old Bullocks building in downtown Los Angeles.

Early this month, the Library Commission was told that the interim housing for 4 1/2 years would cost $1.75 million more than the $6.5 million originally anticipated because of the cost of extra work to bring the former department store up to seismic code and fireproof it.

Times staff writers David Holley and Boris Yaro contributed to this article.

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