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Friends Say Tall Tales Trapped Arson Suspect

Times Staff Writers

City arson investigators said Saturday that they are “convinced” that the man they have been interrogating since Friday evening is responsible for last year’s arson fire at the Los Angeles Central Library.

But friends and relatives of the suspect, 28-year-old Harry Peak, said that the part-time actor must have inadvertently lied his way into jail. They portrayed him as a gregarious person who often lost friends and jobs by telling tall tales to gain attention.

Peak was arrested Friday at his Hollywood home and booked at Hollywood Division police station on suspicion of arson. Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Dean Cathey said that Peak was questioned Friday night and that interrogation will continue today at the Hollywood station.

Peak, who is being held in lieu of $250,000 bail, has not been charged with the $22-million arson fire of the city landmark last April 29.

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But Cathey said: “We are convinced that he is the perpetrator.”

Investigators were led to Peak, he said, as the result of a telephone call, one of many tips they received on the case. Cathey refused to comment on what evidence they have involving the suspect, but noted that Peak had been questioned several times over the last few months and allegedly had given conflicting statements.

In a brief conversation, Peak’s father said authorities have “no evidence” to charge his son and that his son is requesting a public defender. Several acquaintances said Peak told them that he was in the library the day of the fire, and that he was being investigated by the Fire Department.

Phillip Laing, a former roommate, said that Peak told him the day of the fire that he was at the library doing research for a San Francisco law firm for which he ran errands. “He told us a story that he was carried out by firemen, that he helped a lady out the window,” Laing said.

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Laing said Peak was asked to move out because “we got tired of his fabrication of stories and because he didn’t contribute enough to the rent.”

Dennis Vines, who employed Peak on and off for six years as a telephone clerk in his West Hollywood marketing and consulting firm, said Peak told him that he had gone to the library to do research on how he could apply for a Civil Service job.

“It was a typical Harry story. I called him on it,” Vines said. “I asked him details about the library, like where the entrance was and things like that, and he didn’t know. I figure that what really happened is that he heard about the fire or saw it from the freeway or something and decided it would make interesting conversation to say he was there.”

Vines said that Peak was “a good worker, warm hearted and the kind of person who gave away everything, not just financially, but emotionally as well.” He said that he had a showdown with Peak and insisted that he tell him the truth at all times or he would be fired. He said he finally let him go because he continually lost the keys to the office.

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Peak, who friends say grew up in the Whittier area and served in the military, held numerous part-time jobs--including telephone clerk, limousine washer, errand boy for a law firm--while he tried to develop an acting career.

Some friends said that Peak told them that arson investigators must have got a tip about him from attorneys who attended a party where he talked about being rescued at the library. Others speculated that the mother of another former roommate called police after her son had a falling out with Peak. (A $30,000 reward was offered for information leading to the arrest of a suspect.)

As investigators interviewed him and his friends over the months, Peak seemed genuinely perplexed as to why he was being pinpointed, his friends said. As the investigation wore on, he became increasingly upset, they said.

Clark Smith, who runs a small Highland Park area abbey where Peak occasionally stayed, said: “We all laughed when they (the investigators) said Harry gave conflicting stories. Harry always gives conflicting stories. That’s just the way he is. But I’m afraid this time it’s gotten him into some serious difficulties.”

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He also questions whether the composite drawing of the arson suspect released by authorities could be of Peak. “He hasn’t had a mustache in four years, and the composite is too narrow a face and the nose is too big and eyebrows too heavy. I mean, Harry looks more like the actor Jon Voight, and that drawing sure doesn’t.”

The drawing is one released by investigators after they interviewed employees and other witnesses who recalled seeing a blond-haired man in his early 20s in a restricted area near the northwest section of the library’s book stacks where the fire started.

Smith said that Peak called him shortly after his arrest and asked that he bring him some cigarettes.

“He has had a lot of problems, mostly financial, but in the past several months he seems to have gotten his act together. He had several small parts on TV shows, and had found a nice place to stay,” Smith said. “And he’s very religious. I just don’t believe he did it.”

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Staff writer David Holley contributed to this story.


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