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Judge orders a man accused of starting the Da Vinci apartment fire to stand trial

Judge orders a man accused of starting the Da Vinci apartment fire to stand trial
Dawud Abdulwali, above at his preliminary hearing, is accused of starting the December 2014 Da Vinci apartment fire in downtown L.A. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A judge on Wednesday ordered a man charged with starting a massive downtown Los Angeles fire that destroyed the Da Vinci apartment complex and caused $100 million in damages to stand trial on arson charges in connection with the 2014 blaze.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge M.L. Villar delivered the decision following a two-day preliminary hearing for Dawud Abdulwali, who is accused of starting the Dec. 7, 2014, fire that charred the unfinished, seven-story complex along the 110 Freeway.

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"There is overwhelming circumstantial evidence," she said.

There were no injuries or deaths caused by the fire, but prosecutors say the blaze put lives at risk. Abdulwali, 57, has pleaded not guilty.

On Wednesday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Carney showed the judge a video recording from a building across the 110 Freeway from the Da Vinci site that depicts the minutes leading up to the fire.

Los Angeles Fire arson Investigator Robert McLoud, who reviewed the footage during his investigation, explained that the video shows a vehicle stopping on the shoulder of the northbound 110 Freeway alongside the apartment complex at 11:18 p.m. The driver puts on the car's emergency lights and exits the vehicle, making his way up an embankment and into the complex. A few minutes later, there appears to be a flash from inside, McLoud said.

McLoud said that vehicle appeared to be a taxi cab with a dark colored top and lighter colored sides.

The investigator testified that he later received Abdulwali's name as a person of interest in the case and found someone by that name on Facebook. One post on the person's Facebook page showed a photograph of a taxi cab from the Independent Taxi Cab Co., he said. The taxi in the photograph looked the same as the one on the video, he testified. Other posts included derogatory remarks about police officers and comments about high-profile police killings of African Americans.

McLoud quoted one comment as saying, "How many buildings have to be burned to the ground" for the killings to stop?"

Special Agent Sam Chung of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives testified that he met with the owner of the Independent Taxi Cab Co. The company's records showed that the car in question was no longer being used as a taxi and had been sold.

Chung testified that DMV records showed that the car was purchased by Abdulwali.

An undercover LAPD officer testified that a team of investigators surveilled Abdulwali and saw him driving the same cab.

LAPD Det. Peter Lee said that information from a cellphone provider showed that a phone belonging to Abdulwali was near the Da Vinci site during the time the fire started.

The testimony came a day after another man told the court that Abdulwali, 57, bragged to him at a party a week after the fire that he had set the blaze and was angry about the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

"He was mad," Popaul 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."

The prosecution also played a recording of Abdulwali's former roommate telling police that he, too, heard Abdulwali speak passionately about the protests in Ferguson following the fatal shooting of Brown and about wanting vengeance.

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"Cops kill my people," Edwyn Gomez recalled his roommate saying. "We should go do this, we should go burn some [expletive] down.... We should go break some windows."

Both men testified that they didn't go to police at the time because they didn't think Abdulwali was serious about burning buildings.

On Wednesday, L.A.'s mayor and police chief had harsh words about the link alleged between Brown's killing and the downtown L.A. fire.

"To think that this is any kind of justification for burning down and risking lives in Los Angeles is absolutely ridiculous," LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said.

Mayor Eric Garcetti noted that many people were upset about events in Ferguson but didn't resort to violence.

"There are a lot of people who are angry about images that we see and what we saw in Ferguson. But I didn't go lighting up a building," Garcetti said. "All the other people I know who were upset didn't go out destroying property, causing us millions of dollars of damage and risking lives."

Abdulwali is scheduled to be arraigned May 25 on aggravated arson and arson of a structure charges.

Times staff writer Kate Mather contributed to this report.

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