The man charged with burning down the Da Vinci apartment complex and causing $100 million in damages, bragged about the fire at a hotel party a week later and was angry at high-profile police killings of African Americans, a witness testified Tuesday.
The testimony came during a preliminary hearing in the arson case against Dawud Abdulwali, who is accused of starting a fire on Dec. 7, 2014, that charred the unfinished, seven-story complex along the 110 Freeway in downtown L.A.
The witness, Popaul Tshimanga, said he and Abdulwali attended a party in a Hollywood hotel a week later. At the event, the witness recalled, Abdulwali ranted about the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
"He was mad," Tshimanga said, adding that the defendant said "he burned the building" near the 110 Freeway. "He didn't like the way the cops were killing black people."
Abdulwali's former roommate, Edwyn Gomez, previously told investigators that he, too, had heard Abdulwali speak passionately about the protests in Ferguson following the fatal shooting of Brown and about wanting vengeance.
"Cops kill my people," Gomez recalled his roommate saying. "We should go do this, we should go burn some [expletive] down.... We should go break some windows."
During Tuesday's hearing, Gomez said he didn't remember hearing Abdulwali, 57, make such comments and he appeared visibly upset as a prosecutor played a recording of his conversation with the police. Gomez said he had no idea he was being recorded.
Gomez said he felt manipulated and confused by the police, adding that Abdulwali took him in while he was homeless and had "helped me out more than anybody in my life." Tshimanga said that both he and the defendant had consumed alcohol and cocaine at the hotel party. Both men testified that they didn't go to police at the time because they didn't think Abdulwali was serious about burning buildings.
During Tuesday's hearing, prosecutors played surveillance video from a nearby Bank of America that captured the minutes leading up to the fire.
About 11:20 p.m., a car pulls up outside the apartment complex and the driver puts on the vehicle's emergency lights. A person hops out of the driver's-side door and appears to enter the apartment building through a sliding glass door. A few minutes later, there's a flash of light inside the apartment complex.
Special Agent Thomas Rooney of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives testified that the flash was consistent with what happens when someone uses an accelerant and then lights a fire.
Rooney testified that a dog sniffed the scene after the fire and was alerted to an area from which a sample was taken. Agents determined the sample contained gasoline and heavy petroleum distillate, Rooney said.
Leonid Satanovsky, who manages the Independent Taxi Cab Co., testified that the car in the surveillance video appears to be a Ford Crown Victoria bearing the distinctive red, white and blue markings of the cabs used by his company.
All cars in the company fleet have a GPS tracking device, but Satanovsky said none were near the Da Vinci apartments around the time the fire started.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Carney said testimony later in the preliminary hearing will show that a cab owner sold the car, which was eventually purchased by Abdulwali. The defendant, Carney said, worked as "a bandit taxi cab driver."
Evidence in the case also includes fire footage filmed by Howard Raishbrook, a freelance cameraman who happened to notice the plume of smoke in the early hours of the next morning.
Raishbrook – who compared himself to Jake Gyllenhaal's character in the movie "Nightcrawler" – said he pulled to the side of the 110 and began filming. Huge orange flames burned high into the air and within minutes had engulfed nearly the whole building. The fire left behind a plume of smoke that floated over downtown like a giant, black mushroom.
Raishbrook's footage, which the prosecution played during the hearing, shows huge chunks of the wood framing collapsing to the ground and palm trees burning nearby. At one point during the recording, Raishbrook screamed because the fire was so hot. His arm, he said, turned bright red.
"I've filmed some big fires," he said, "but this was incredibly fast."
As Raishbrook's recording played, Abdulwali watched intently. He used his right hand to massage his neck and, a bit later, he yawned.
Nobody died or was injured, but prosecutors say that the fire put many lives at risk. The inferno melted signs on the 110 and cracked more than 100 windows at the nearby headquarters of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Abdulwali, who is charged with aggravated arson and arson of a structure, has pleaded not guilty. His preliminary hearing will continue Wednesday.
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