Owner Held in Fatal Blaze at Hotel
The owner of the Palomar Hotel in Hollywood and his stepfather were arrested Wednesday on charges of murder, arson and insurance fraud for a fire in August that killed two people, including a mother who passed her young children to rescuers before falling to her death.
Juan Jose Ortiz, 44, and his stepfather, Joseph Donald Lewellen, 67, were arrested early Wednesday at their North Hills home. They could face the death penalty if convicted.
Ortiz’s brother, Arturo Ortiz, who officials believe set the residential hotel ablaze Aug. 16 as part of an insurance scam that could have generated $900,000, died in the fire. Arturo Ortiz, who was resident manager at the hotel, was found dead on the second floor near several empty gasoline containers.
Criminal conspiracy and arson authorities said they talked with Juan Jose Ortiz and Lewellen several times during the three-month investigation by the LAPD, the Fire Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Investigators looked at other possible suspects, but Fire Chief Dennis Waters said, “As we got more evidence, everything kind of pointed in one direction.”
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office charged Ortiz and Lewellen with two counts of murder, five counts of arson causing great bodily injury, one count of arson of a structure and three counts of insurance fraud.
Juan Jose Ortiz had presented an insurance claim to the California Fair Plan Insurance Co. the day after the fire, said Al Hess, vice president of claims for the Los Angeles firm. The company did not pay the claim because of the criminal investigation, Hess said.
Investigators believe 47-year-old Arturo Ortiz, also known as Juan Pedro Salazar, poured 40 gallons of gasoline throughout the building. He died after the fumes hit the pilot light on a first-floor water heater, ignited the fuel and caused a powerful explosion. Then flames raced up the stairwell and through the building, forcing screaming residents out of windows and onto ledges, authorities said.
Waters, who heads the arson section for the Fire Department, said Arturo Ortiz meant to burn the building, but “it didn’t ignite by his plan.”
Juan Ortiz and Lewellen were not believed to be at the building at the time of the blaze, but were “associated with the crime,” Waters said. Though Juan Ortiz is the owner, the complex was family-operated and Lewellen helped Arturo Ortiz manage the building, officials said.
The four-story complex, which was built in 1925 and had a history of fire safety code violations, went up in flames just after 3:30 a.m. Fifty-two tenants escaped the burning building at 5473 Santa Monica Blvd. on their own, and 30 others were rescued by firefighters.
Four firefighters were injured while battling the flames and helping residents flee.
“It hits really close to home, with the firefighters being injured like that,” Waters said. “But for the grace of God, we could have lost a lot more people.”
Norma Galindo, 38, who lived at the hotel, fell after handing her two children to firefighters on a ladder outside a fourth-floor window.
Her 3-year-old son, Miguel, and 5-year-old daughter, Lupita, suffered smoke inhalation and minor burns.
Fire Capt. Bob McMaster, who helped rescue the children, said Wednesday that he wishes he could have saved their mother too.
“We tried so hard to save Norma Galindo and we just ran out of time,” he said. “The whole situation is kind of a sad chapter in my career. It’s a relief to see that the folks they suspected are being arrested.”
Galindo’s husband, Miguel Galindo, said through his attorney Wednesday that he was pleased by the arrests. Galindo and his children are still dealing with their loss and the family has not yet found permanent housing, his attorney said.
“It’s been difficult, especially with the children,” said Galindo’s attorney, Miguel Caballero. “Their whole lives have been turned upside down.”
Caballero said Galindo filed wrongful-death lawsuits against Ortiz and Lewellen, citing fire hazards in the hotel.
Ortiz’s civil attorney, George Sellers, said his client maintains his innocence. Sellers said Ortiz had spent a lot of his own money on improving the building and making sure it complied with city codes.
"[The family] was very sincere about keeping the building and operating it as a business,” Sellers said. “It would be the furthest thing from their minds to destroy the building and endanger the lives of the tenants.”
City records show the hotel had fire safety violations dating back to 1999.
Ortiz pleaded no contest to violations dealing with blocked fire escapes and faulty fire doors. He was fined by the city, placed on probation and ordered to bring the building into compliance. He installed some fire safety equipment, but the hotel was cited again in July for broken smoke detectors and locked exit doors, according to city records.
Lewellen also had legal problems, according to court records. He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of petty theft and unlawful use of a driver’s license in the mid-1990s, the records show.
Ortiz and Lewellen were being held late Wednesday without bail at the Los Angeles County Jail. They are scheduled for arraignment Monday in Superior Court.