Citing a lack of sufficient evidence, the district attorney's office declined Monday to file arson charges against a 28-year-old Hollywood man arrested Friday as a suspect in last year's devastating Los Angeles Central Library fire.
"Thank God the system protects the innocent," said Harry Peak, a part-time actor and errand boy for a law firm, as he strode out of the Hollywood Division Police Station jail at about 6:45 p.m.
Peak's attorney, Robert Sheahen, acknowledged that his client had told acquaintances and investigators that he had set the $22-million blaze, but did so only because he "has a different sense of humor."
Comparing Peak to the type of person who is arrested at airports for making quips about bombs, Sheahen said, "He likes to joke . . . he made a few jokes he shouldn't have."
Authorities, however, insisted Monday that Peak remains the prime suspect in the April 29 fire and that the investigation is continuing. He is not considered a suspect in a second blaze that struck the library Sept. 3, officials reiterated.
There is "no doubt in my mind," that Peak started the blaze in the classic old structure at 5th and Flower streets, Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Dean Cathey told reporters after the district attorney's decision was announced. "We have a good deal of evidence . . . we'll go back and take a look at where we want to progress from here."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen Kay, who appeared with Cathey, said "there was clearly probable cause" for fire investigators to arrest Peak last week.
But in reviewing the case Monday, he added, it was determined that there is not enough evidence that could be presented to a jury to prove Peak guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
"There is not enough admissible evidence at this time to warrant a felony filing," said Kay, head deputy in charge of the central operations complaint division. "We are rejecting it pending further investigation . . . The case is not closed."
Although Kay refused to discuss specifics, he noted that in some instances, statements made by defendants themselves cannot be admitted as evidence in a trial.
While Peak could have been held in custody until Wednesday, Kay made the decision against filing charges after meeting Monday afternoon with Cathey and other fire officials. At that session, evidence reviewed apparently included the substance of interviews with Peak both before and since his arrest at his Hollywood home late Friday afternoon.
Cathey acknowledged that Peak, the prime suspect for several months, was interviewed in jail for about five hours Friday night and was interviewed again from about 6:30 a.m. until noon Monday.
Late Monday, attorney Sheahen said that before the arrest, Peak told investigators he set the fire, but once in custody, changed his story.
"Harry wants to please people," said the attorney, who met Peak when the Hollywood man testified as a defense witness in a 1983 murder case he handled. "If he could please people by saying things a certain way, he'd do it. He wouldn't lie, but he would color events. He likes to joke . . .
"He's so happy to be out after four days of terror and misery," Sheahen continued. "He wants to forget about having made any jokes."
A source familiar with the investigation said the principal reason authorities finally decided to arrest Peak was that he failed a polygraph test.
But according to Sheahen, it was "physically impossible" for Peak to have set the late morning fire because his time that day was accounted for. At 9 a.m., Sheahen asserted, Peak was in a downtown courtroom, at 10 a.m. he was in Hollywood with two other men, and at 11 a.m. he was in Santa Fe Springs.
The arson investigators, he added, "are top people doing a top job. But they got the wrong guy."
Cathey said the district attorney's office--which has engaged in a coordinated investigation with fire investigators--had concurred with the decision to arrest Peak last week. Although he did not criticize the decision not to file charges, he expressed concern that Peak could leave Los Angeles after his release from jail. He had been held in lieu of $250,000 in the arson case.
Kay, however, noted that Peak has remained in the Los Angeles area, even though he "knew he was the prime suspect long before he was arrested."
Both Kay and Cathey denied that authorities felt pressured to make an arrest due to the lengthy period of time since the fire. "It's not a desperation act at all," said Cathey.
After Peak's arrest, friends and relatives of the part-time actor told reporters that Peak may have become a victim of his propensity for telling tall tales to gain attention.
Arson investigators, meanwhile, said they are still convinced Peak committed the crime and said he gave conflicting statements when questioned several times during the past few months. Peak also resembles a composite drawing, released shortly after the initial fire, of an unidentified man described as "blondish" and in his late 20s or early 30s.
At this point, Cathey said, "We'll be looking at everything that we've done until this time, deciding what witnesses if any we can talk to again that might give us better or more information than we have currently.
"And (we'll) certainly look for somebody from the public or from the library who for whatever reasons did not come forward the day of the fire who might be able to identify more specifically Mr. Peak or any other suspect."