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Suspect in Fire Freed for Lack of Evidence

Times Staff Writers

County prosecutors, citing a lack of evidence, declined Wednesday to file charges against a 42-year-old transient who confessed to setting the fire that destroyed the historic Pan Pacific Auditorium.

Mark Kamansky, who had been in custody since his arrest last Sunday, was released from Los Angeles County Jail at 4 p.m.

It was the second time in as many years that fire officials announced the arrest of a suspect in a major fire only to see him released a few days later for lack of evidence.

The botched investigation deteriorated into a crossfire of criticism as district attorney’s officials accused fire investigators of “jumping the gun” and fire officials blamed Mayor Tom Bradley’s staff for applying pressure on them to announce Kamansky’s confession at a hastily called news conference Tuesday.

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Prosecutors also complained that their urgent warnings to hold off on the conference were not heeded by city officials.

Arrested in Park

John F. Lynch, director of central operations for the district attorney’s office, said the decision to release Kamansky came as arson investigators were scrambling to shore up their case against him. Kamansky was arrested in a park next to the ruins of the 54-year-old auditorium.

“We’ve decided that we are not going to be filing charges against Mr. Kamansky,” Lynch said at a new conference, “simply because the only evidence that the Fire Department has presented that ties Mr. Kamansky to the fire is his own statement, which does not comport with the physical evidence at the fire.

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“He is a transient, and it is not unknown for people like Mr. Kamansky, in high-publicity crimes, to come forward and confess. We simply do not have anywhere near the quantity of evidence we need to try this case.”

Fire officials were not publicly fazed by the turn of events. “We respect their opinion,” Battalion Chief Ed Allen said. “But we have not slowed down the investigation one bit, and we are not ruling out anyone.”

Albert Gordon, a lawyer who was retained by Kamansky’s mother to represent her son, said the transient had spent a year at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk five years ago and “has deteriorated since then.”

‘It Is Horrible’

“I think it is horrible that the society we live in, as powerful as it is, takes this poor, sick, decayed man and makes him a victim of a crime,” Gordon said in a telephone interview. “He would confess to killing President Roosevelt if you asked him.”

The case against Kamansky is almost identical to that of a 28-year-old Hollywood man arrested on suspicion of setting fire to the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986.

“It’s deja vu ,” Lynch said.

In that case, Harry Peak was arrested after making statements to acquaintances and investigators that authorities described as a confession. After his arrest, Peak insisted that his remarks had been exaggerations, and the district attorney’s office decided not to file charges.

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Peak has since filed a $15-million lawsuit against the city, claiming that fire officials never had a legitimate reason to hold him for the crime. The city, in turn, filed a cross-complaint against Peak asking for $20 million in damages for the loss of about 375,000 volumes destroyed in the blaze. The city is also seeking $2 million in damages for destruction of the building, pay for the 350 firefighters who battled the fire and the use of 3 million gallons of water in fighting the blaze. Both lawsuits are pending.

In the Pan Pacific case, Kamansky was arrested by arson investigators after he was detained by a county parks security officer investigating an allegation that Kamansky had exposed himself in the playground at Pan Pacific Park.

Kamansky later told arson investigators that he had been in the shuttered entertainment center on several occasions before the fire and that an unidentified man and woman helped him set the blaze that destroyed it last Wednesday.

No Accomplices Found

“We have not located any accomplices yet, but we are looking for them diligently,” Deputy Fire Chief Craig Drummond said. “Obviously, we’d like to talk to them a lot. . . . The investigation is not moving as quickly as we would like.”

Drummond added that arson investigators had impounded a brown 1969 Volkswagen station wagon that Kamansky had lived in a few blocks away from Pan Pacific Park. Arson investigators were expected to examine the contents of the automobile today.

Gordon, Kamansky’s lawyer, admonished fire investigators for failing to record his client’s words during their interviews with him. Gordon said that Kamansky’s statements were “so far out it is tragic.”

“The reason they didn’t record his statements is because they would been a laughingstock,” Gordon said. “Instead, they wrote down his words to make them seem coherent.”

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Lynch appeared to agree, pointing out that Kamansky’s “confession” was riddled with inconsistencies. “He made several different statements as to what happened and how the fire started,” Lynch said. “There is absolutely no evidence against this man except his statement.”

Lynch chastised fire officials for announcing Kamansky’s arrest at the Tuesday news conference.

“We asked there not be a press conference about anything that would be evidence in the case,” Lynch said. “They were way too early in announcing they had the person who set the fire.”

Battalion Chief Allen responded that the mayor’s office was partly responsible.

Allen said Fire Chief Donald Manning originally intended to announce the arrest at a news conference scheduled for 2 p.m. “because we knew there was a high public interest in that fire and we wanted to give as much information as possible.”

“The chief (Manning) informed the mayor, and the mayor said he would like to be involved,” Allen said. “But the best time for him was 10:45 a.m., and that put us in a scramble mode.”

Call Too Late

At 10 a.m., fire officials received a call from the district attorney’s office advising them not to hold such a news conference until more evidence was gathered. But by that time it was too late, Allen said.

“The mayor’s office had notified major television stations,” Allen said. “It was already rolling.”

Manning refused to divulge Kamansky’s name at the news conference, saying that prosecutors recommended that he not do so--a fact later denied by district attorney’s officials. But county parks security police released the name, later confirmed by fire officials.

The mayor’s attendance at Tuesday’s press conference with Manning also prompted criticism from city officials close to the investigation. “It was a little grandstanding on the mayor’s part,” remarked one official who asked not to be identified.

Bill Chandler, Bradley’s press spokesman, said Wednesday it was “absolutely untrue” that the mayor was grandstanding or trying to make political mileage by announcing the arrest prematurely.

“The mayor is the chief executive of the city,” Chandler said. “The fire is a major concern of the people in the city.”

Chandler also denied that the mayor’s staff knew of the original scheduling of the news conference at 2 p.m.

He described Tuesday’s press conference as a “fairly common type of press conference” and said it was not unusual for the mayor to be involved when announcing a major arrest in a case of this sort.

The mayor’s office did not have an immediate comment on the release of the suspect.


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