When arson trails go cold

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Four years ago this weekend, witnesses saw a man flipping lighted matches from the window of a van -- setting off the Old fire, which eventually killed four people and burned more than 200 homes in San Bernardino County.

Ever since, law enforcement officials have been trying to bring the man to justice, so far to no avail.

The frustration that has attended that investigation is a sobering reminder to authorities who have vowed to catch and punish this year’s arsonists.


Although most Southern California wildfires are not deliberately set, arsons attract a lot of official attention. Two of last week’s 35 fires have been officially determined to have been deliberately set, including the 25,000-acre Santiago fire in Orange County.

This weekend, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger once again promised that the state would catch and punish the arsonists.

“We will hunt down the people responsible for that. We will not fail,” he said. “If I were one of those people who started the fire, I would not sleep soundly.”

If history is any guide, making good on that promise will require not only diligent investigation, but some unexpected breaks.

“A little luck never hurts,” said April Carroll, a special agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who specializes in arson. “Fortunately, the criminal sometimes messes up. They become cocky. They make a mistake. And hopefully you’re there to catch them.”

If good fortune fails to intervene, the hunt can be long and frustrating. Arson investigators usually have the deck stacked against them from the beginning, said San Bernardino County Sheriff’s homicide Sgt. Frank Bell, who’s leading the still-active Old fire investigation.

“The No. 1 difficulty in solving an arson is that certain evidence is immediately destroyed,” he said. “That physical evidence we’re so used to finding in homicides is rapidly gone around the point of the fire’s origin. If not destroyed, it’s altered significantly. The second difficulty is witnesses. The arsonist usually finds a place where there’s no one else around to start a fire, and then they leave.”

In the case of the Santiago fire, which burned 14 homes in Orange County last week, authorities are looking for a white Ford F-150 pickup truck with tubular chrome running boards that was seen near the fire’s source about the time it began last Sunday.

The fire started at two places “a little bit apart,” said Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather. “The person or people who did this are exceptionally lucky, or they have some knowledge of when they can do the most damage when you set a fire.”

In the case of the Old fire, investigators also started with what seemed to be some good leads.

Three eyewitnesses saw someone in the van the day the fire started. They helped authorities draw a composite sketch. The sketch received widespread publicity -- and investigators spent the next three months checking out thousands of tips.

In January 2004, San Bernardino County sheriff’s investigators were contacted by an individual who pointed them to a white van in Los Angeles County that the informant said was used to start the Old fire. Investigators came to believe they now had the van, and began to focus their case on a man in his 20s.

A law enforcement source told The Times last week that the suspect is in jail on an unrelated conviction. Detectives also believe there was a second man inside the van, the driver, but have not identified him. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.

However, without the driver’s identity or anyone else able to place the man inside the van at the hour the fire started, the San Bernardino County district attorney has lacked the evidence to file any criminal charges, law enforcement sources said. But in recent months, the source said, federal prosecutors have begun to look at the case.

Investigators faced a similar situation in 1993 while trying to solve that year’s Malibu fire, which destroyed 350 homes and killed three people.

Witnesses placed two young men at the fire’s origin point, Carroll said. Through interviews, investigators felt strongly that the pair, both volunteer firefighters seeking full-time jobs, were responsible.

“It was a circumstantial case, a witness case,” Carroll said. “There were no direct eyewitnesses to the fire.”

For federal prosecutors, it was a “50-50” case, a coin flip, and they did not want to go forward with such odds, particularly as witnesses began to waver, the ATF agent said.

“You need confident witnesses who will not get cold feet,” Carroll said. “Witnesses did not want to be the person who destroyed these young men’s lives.”

That same year, authorities arrested a man in connection with the destructive Laguna Beach fire -- only to release him when they determined he had been in a Mexican jail when the blaze started. That fire, which destroyed more than 300 homes, remains unsolved.

In 1985, investigators struggled from the beginning in the fruitless search for the motorist who dropped flares on brush along La Brea Avenue in Baldwin Hills, sparking a blaze that burned dozens of homes and killed three people.

Joe Riehl, chief of the ATF’s arson division, said an experienced arsonist is an elusive culprit. He pointed out that the 2005 arrest of a man responsible for almost 300 fires in the Washington, D.C., area took a multi-level deployment of expert investigators two years.

Timothy G. Huff, a retired FBI violent-crime analyst who specialized in arson and bombing cases, was with the agency when it and the ATF conducted a major study of arsonists in the 1990s. He said arsonists’ motives have included revenge, extremist beliefs, monetary gain and the desire for excitement. Revenge -- against an individual, institution or group -- seems the most common, he said.

The most sophisticated arsonists, he added, frequently are firefighters themselves.

A case in point was John Orr, a renowned Glendale fire captain and arson investigator who set dozens of blazes throughout Southern California and was the subject of Joseph Wambaugh’s book “Fire Lover.”

In an interview, Wambaugh said Orr was caught after a 1987 Bakersfield fire in which he uncharacteristically left a clue. At the scene, investigators found a yellow piece of notebook paper that was part of an incendiary device. The paper bore a fingerprint. A Bakersfield fire captain, Marvin Casey, who suspected a firefighter was the arsonist, tried to identify the print, but a database in Sacramento could not make a match.

Three years later, the ATF matched the print using a Los Angeles database containing Orr’s fingerprints from a decades-old application to become a police officer.

It didn’t help Orr’s case when an unpublished novel he wrote, “Points of Origin,” seemed to outline how he went about setting fires.

“His character is a firefighter who is an arsonist, and he described in living color what it was like to set arson fires,” Wambaugh said.

Orr was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison for setting fires nearly identical to the ones he described in the novel. Six years later, in 1998, he received a life term for a 1984 blaze in South Pasadena that killed four people.

“John was a legend. For him, I think, it was the thrill of being a hero,” said the ATF’s Carroll.

With the Southern California wildfires dominating local and national news last week, tips regarding the four-year-old Old fire have increased dramatically, said Bell, the homicide investigator. He sought to allay any fears those with information might have about not speaking up sooner.

“If someone can come forward who knows something, they’re not going to be in any trouble from us, even if they sat on the information for years,” Bell said. “We’re not going to go after that person. Our goal is to find the person responsible for lighting the fire.”