Arson charges have been dismissed against a Newbury Park man accused of torching a Thousand Oaks comic-book store, after the Ventura County grand jury refused to indict him.
Christopher Nagano, 20, smiled and said he felt "speechless" after the Ventura County district attorney's office disclosed its decision to dismiss charges at a court hearing Monday.
Nagano had been the only suspect arrested since the Sept. 18 fire at the Heroes and Legends store on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, owned by Myron Cohen-Ross of Agoura Hills.
Despite the grand jury's refusal to indict Nagano, Sheriff's Lt. Dante Honorico said: "As far as we're concerned, he's still our suspect."
Cohen-Ross also has not been eliminated as a suspect, Honorico said. "We still haven't ruled him out, even now," he said. "He was and still is a suspect."
However, Honorico said, "It's unlikely there will be any arrests soon."
Cohen-Ross declined to comment but in previous interviews, the store owner has vehemently denied any involvement in the fire.
Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Kevin J. McGee said prosecutors could have gone ahead with a preliminary hearing scheduled for Monday before a Municipal Court judge.
After hearing witnesses, the judge would have decided whether there was sufficient evidence to order Nagano to stand trial.
However, McGee said, "in view of the grand jury's action . . . we felt it was appropriate to continue the investigation" before proceeding with a court case.
As to whether charges might be refiled against Nagano, McGee said: "It's not out of the realm of possibility."
The dismissal of the arson charge is the latest in a series of unexpected turns in the investigation of the fire, which caused nearly $300,000 damage.
Investigators first viewed the case as one of a series of hate crimes in the Conejo Valley because of anti-Semitic scrawlings left at the scene.
The fire prompted an outpouring of sympathy and fund raising for Cohen-Ross, who is Jewish.
Then investigators said they were considering a possible economic motive.
Nagano was arrested Nov. 11, after an informant told investigators that Nagano claimed to have taken part in the arson, according to a sworn statement filed in court as part of a search warrant request.
The informant--identified as Jason Kinzer--also quoted Nagano as saying that it was his idea to make it appear to be a hate crime and that Cohen-Ross was going to pay him a large sum out of insurance proceeds, according to the affidavit.
Kinzer said Nagano told him that Cohen-Ross had removed the most expensive merchandise from the store a few days before the fire, according to the affidavit.
Kinzer also told investigators that Nagano had shown him a videotape of the fire, the affidavit says.
Cohen-Ross denied all of the allegations attributed to Nagano.
Kinzer and the other witnesses apparently did not satisfy the 17 grand jurors who heard testimony in a secret session Thursday.
Deputy Dist. Atty. John U. Vanarelli, who presented evidence to the grand jury, said he is forbidden by law from discussing the proceedings.
But Honorico said: "I think he was sincere. We haven't changed our judgment as to the validity of his statements to us. We have no reason to disbelieve him."
Nagano's attorney, Louis B. Samonsky Jr., said Kinzer's testimony was suspect because he wants to be a police officer and may have been promised a reward if Nagano is convicted.
Honorico agreed that Kinzer wants to work in law enforcement but said he does not think that ambition influenced Kinzer's testimony.
Nagano was not invited to testify before the grand jury.
Cohen-Ross was summoned as a witness but it was not known whether he agreed to testify.
Prosecutors tried to subpoena Cohen-Ross's business records but withdrew the request after his attorney objected.