Hours after the $25-million Universal Studios fire erupted last November, a private security guard admitted to authorities that he started the blaze with his cigarette lighter, an arson investigator told a Los Angeles judge Wednesday.
The security guard, Michael J. Huston, was questioned for several hours before telling authorities he started the Nov. 6 fire in a paint shed on the studio lot, Los Angeles County fire investigator David Westfield said. Fed by high winds, the fire damaged or destroyed about 20% of the exterior sets at the sprawling movie complex.
“He said, ‘I can’t lie any more,’ ” Westfield testified. “He had a cigarette package and a lighter. He picked up his lighter and said, ‘This is what I used.’ ”
Westfield’s testimony came during the second day of a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to try Huston on charges that he set the fire, which destroyed movie sets used in films such as “Dick Tracy” and “The Sting.”
Westfield said Huston repeated his admission to investigators from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and MCA, owners of Universal Studios.
Huston allegedly told authorities during the 3 a.m. confession that he had a split personality and “it was the other person inside himself” who started the fire, Westfield recalled.
Huston, 40, of Tujunga, was employed by Burns International Security Services and had been assigned to keep watch over an area of the studio that included a street of brownstone facades used to simulate New York and other cities. A new Sylvester Stallone movie, “Oscar,” had concluded filming in the area hours before the fire.
Westfield said Huston first told him he accidentally started the fire in a paint storage shed after chasing a raccoon there and then tossing a lighted cigarette into a trash can. But when confronted with inconsistencies in his account, Westfield testified, Huston admitted he intentionally started the blaze.
Huston said he tried several minutes later to extinguish the fire but that it had grown too big, Westfield testified.
Huston’s attorney, Charles R. English, conceded that the arson investigator’s testimony was damaging to his client but said there is no such confession in a two-hour interview tape-recorded by authorities.
“I’m obviously suspicious about investigators waiting until 3 a.m. for an interview,” English said.
Authorities have speculated that Huston may have set the fire to earn praise for quickly reporting it to his superiors.
Richard Shaw, a dispatcher for the private security company that employed Huston, testified Wednesday that Huston telephoned him to report the fire about 7:15 p.m.
“He said it was a small one and before he hung up he said, ‘It’s getting larger,’ ” Shaw testified.
If convicted, Huston faces a maximum sentence of eight years in prison on the arson charge.
The preliminary hearing before Los Angeles Municipal Judge Jon M. Mayeda is scheduled to continue March 11.