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Man Held in Encino Fire Spree

Times Staff Writers

A 40-year-old Encino man reportedly suffering from depression was arrested in Westwood early Friday in connection with five recent arson attacks on houses of worship in Encino that stoked fear of burgeoning terrorism.

Officials said there was no evidence linking Farshid Tehrani, an Iranian immigrant, to terrorist groups or causes and there was no evidence that he had any accomplices.

One police official who asked not to be named said Tehrani, who is Jewish, was a firebug with serious personal problems. “We probably saved a lot of lives on this one,” the official said. “He was heading to something bad.”

Tehrani’s sister, Sheena Tehrani, said her brother ran a jewelry business in downtown Los Angeles but gave it up two years ago because of a “depression disorder.”

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“Farshid was a jeweler and he was helping support our family, but he worked so much he just got burned out,” she said. “My brother is a kind, caring man. You could ask a hundred people and they’d all say that about Farshid. He doesn’t even like to eat meat because he doesn’t want to hurt animals.”

Police, fire and city officials said that Tehrani was arrested about 1 a.m. on a street corner in Westwood. Officers said Tehrani was trying to ignite a trash can at Glendon and Kinross avenues just before he was taken into custody on suspicion of arson. They said he did not resist.

Peter Callaway, manager of the Westwood Brewery Company, a popular hangout for UCLA students, said he noticed two men who appeared to be undercover police officers watching patrons shortly after midnight on Friday. Callaway said a third man he assumes was another undercover officer stood across the street, watching the door. Detectives said they had been watching Tehrani for more than a day after an informant reported the Encino man could be linked to the arson attacks.

Four or five Los Angeles Police Department cars were parked around the corner on Glendon Avenue, Callaway said.

He said that at about 1 a.m., the police cars turned on their flashing lights and drove rapidly to the corner, where the arrest was made.

Tehrani was being held in lieu of $50,000 bail at the Van Nuys jail. The case will be presented to the district attorney on Monday.

On Thursday at a news conference in front of Parker Center, Mayor James K. Hahn called the blazes “acts of hatred that threaten to tear at the fabric of our community.”

City Councilman Jack Weiss on Friday urged authorities to pursue hate crime charges against Tehrani.

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The first fire, which caused between $75,000 and $100,000 in damage, was discovered about 1 a.m. on April 26 at the First Presbyterian Church of Encino.

The next two blazes broke out Monday. One caused minor damage at the Bahai Faith Community Center on Genesta Avenue. The other scorched the roof of a small Iranian synagogue on Ventura Boulevard.

The fourth attack, on Tuesday night, was at the Da’at Torah Educational Center, a small storefront temple at a Ventura Boulevard minimall. The only damage was a shattered window.

About 10 hours after the Da’at attack and six blocks away, someone threw what is believed to have been a Molotov cocktail into the sanctuary of the Valley Beth Shalom synagogue. An automated sprinkler system snuffed the blaze.

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About a day before the first fire, someone used lamp fluid to start a blaze at a home in the 5100 block of Balboa Boulevard. Tehrani and his relatives had rented out the apartment a few months earlier to Moshe Hafuta, rabbi at the Da’at temple. An official close to the case, who asked not to be named, said Tehrani is a suspect in that fire.

Hafuta said Friday that before he and his wife moved out, he and the Tehrani family had a disagreement about inoperative appliances and faulty water service.

Hafuta said he withheld some of his rent money while waiting for promised repairs that never materialized.

“I don’t know if I owe them anything -- it could be they owe me money,” the rabbi said. “But this is crazy. It is not a reason to attack a synagogue.”

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He said he is surprised that Tehrani, who once came to pray at the temple, is a suspect in any of the fires.

“He is very quiet, somebody you cannot read,” Hafuta said. “It is difficult to be in touch with him.”

Tehrani’s sister could not believe her brother had been arrested.

“There is no way, no way, no way,” said Sheena Tehrani. “There has to be some mistake. My brother is not that type of person.”

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Tehrani came to the United States from Tehran about 16 years ago, his sister said, and has devoted his life to his family: his mother, father and two younger sisters, she said.

Sheena Tehrani, 37, also a jeweler, said that her brother had not worked for about two years but that he occasionally helped her at her business, as he did on Thursday.

Sheena Tehrani said she last saw her brother Thursday night at her home near Westwood.

On Friday afternoon at the Tehrani home on Balboa Boulevard, Fakzaneh Tehrani, the suspect’s mother, was quick to say that her son was “a very good boy, very good.”

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She showed off her son’s neat, sparsely decorated bedroom, which featured a picture of Charlie Chaplin. There were two large books -- a dictionary and one on Native Americans -- that his mother said he loved.

Public records show that Tehrani once ran a shop in the heart of the Los Angeles jewelry district called Downtown L.A. Jewelry Liquidators. A vendor at the shop said Tehrani sold jewelry there for a while before leaving the business several years ago.

A clerk at nearby Amir Jewelry, who declined to give his name, described Tehrani as “a friendly guy.”

Records show Tehrani had financial problems.

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The state filed two tax liens against him, one for $11,587 in October 2000 and the other for $3,407 in September 2001, four months after the Household Finance Corp. won a judgment against him of $19,685.

Court records show that in 1998, Tehrani sued Brink’s Inc., contending that the security company had lost a valuable shipment belonging to him and had refused to pay him for the loss.

Tehrani failed to appear when the case came up for trial in Los Angeles federal court. In response, U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts ordered Tehrani to pay $9,800 in sanctions. When Tehrani ignored the order, Letts dismissed the case with prejudice.

Tehrani then filed a complaint with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, accusing Letts of misconduct. When the appeals court rejected his complaint, Tehrani tried unsuccessfully to sue the appellate court judge who ruled against him.

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In a court document he submitted two years ago, Tehrani asked for a waiver of filing fees on the grounds that he was indigent. He said that he owned a house and a car, but had no cash or savings and had not filed an income tax return since 1998.

Asked to list the names of people who depend on him for support, Tehrani, who is single and is not known to have any children, wrote, “a lot of people.”

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Times staff writers Eric Malnic, Andrew Blankstein, David Rosenzweig, Greg Krikorian and George Ramos contributed to this report.

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