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Man sentenced to 15 years for starting massive Da Vinci blaze in downtown L.A.

Dawud Abdulwali, 57, pleaded no contest to one charge of arson in the December 2014 blaze. (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

A man charged with setting a roaring blaze at the partially built Da Vinci apartment complex in Los Angeles that caused millions of dollars in damage, melted freeway signs and shrouded downtown in smoke was sentenced Monday to 15 years in prison, prosecutors said.

Dawud Abdulwali — who prosecutors allege set the fire in anger over fatal police shootings of African Americans in Ferguson, Mo., and other cities — pleaded no contest to one count of arson and admitted to using an accelerant to start the blaze, according to a statement issued by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

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Abdulwali, who had also been charged with aggravated arson, could have faced life in prison, prosecutors said.

No one was injured in the fire, which destroyed the half-built structure and shattered windows at the nearby headquarters of the city's Department of Water and Power. The blaze caused between $20 million and $30 million in damage to the Da Vinci complex and an additional $50 million in damage to the DWP building, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department. The apartment complex's owner also suffered approximately $100 million in lost potential revenue as a result of the fire, according to a probation report filed with the court.

Deputy Public Defender Lowynn Young said Abdulwali was offered the plea deal Thursday and – although he was hoping for less time – decided he was comfortable with the terms when he considered the risk of facing the maximum punishment after a trial.

"Anyone faced with a life sentence – when you're presented with an opportunity not to risk it – I think that's something worth considering," Young said.

In earlier court hearings, several people who knew Abdulwali, 58, testified that the blaze was a response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer. Brown's death touched off protests across the country and jump-started a national conversation about police use of force against minorities.

"Cops kill my people…. We should go do this, we should go burn some [expletive] down.... We should go break some windows," Abdulwali once said, according to testimony delivered last year by his former roommate, Edwyn Gomez.

Abdulwali, who was living in South L.A. at the time of the fire, also bragged about burning the complex down at a Hollywood hotel party a few days later, according to witness testimony.

Prosecutors alleged that Abdulwali worked as "a bandit taxicab driver," and surveillance video from the area showed a man hopping out of a cab near the complex on the night of the blaze.

The man then climbed a fence and disappeared into the structure. A few minutes later, there was a flash of light inside the apartment complex.

An arson investigator testified he found a Facebook profile associated with Abdulwali hosting pictures of the same cab shown in the video. The Facebook profile also contained posts rife with derogatory remarks about police officers and comments about high-profile police killings of African Americans.

"'How many buildings have to be burned to the ground' for the killings to stop?" read one post, LAFD arson investigator Robert McLoud testified.

In a report to the court, a probation officer said the crime suggested "planning, sophistication or professionalism," caused millions of dollars in damage and had a lasting impact on the community.

Abdulwali had a lengthy criminal history spanning more than three decades, according to the report.

He spent much of the 1980s on probation following convictions for receiving stolen property and grand theft auto, as well as a drug offense. He tried to elude authorities by giving fake names to officers and changing a vehicle's identification number, according to the report.

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In 1993, he was sentenced to 100 days in jail and three years of probation for possessing a firearm as a felon and for importing wild animals without a permit. A year later, he was convicted of grand theft and sentenced to 16 months behind bars. Not long after his release, he was arrested again and convicted of felony vehicle theft. Again, he was sentenced to 16 months in state prison.

In September 2012, Los Angeles prosecutors filed charges of sexual assault against Abdulwali, accusing him of raping and imprisoning a woman, records show. But the charges were dropped about a month later.

At the time of the 2014 fire, he was on probation for a misdemeanor battery conviction, the report said. Abdulwali, who is originally from Boston and had previously worked as a club promoter, photographer and driver, told authorities he was unemployed at the time of his arrest in connection with the fire. He will now have to register as an arson offender.

The fire was powerful enough to ignite fronds on nearby palm trees and melt computers and cubicles in neighboring office buildings. The complex is near the Harbor Freeway, and the heat from the flames was so intense that it damaged fiber-optic cables near the roadway and melted one of the signs. Homeless people sleeping blocks away said they were roused from their sleep by the inferno.

One woman, who was sleeping under a 110 Freeway underpass that night, said she was awoken by the feeling of her bare feet baking. Residents in nearby apartment buildings and lofts were forced to evacuate, and the flames also forced the closure of some sections of adjacent freeways, paralyzing rush-hour traffic the following morning.

The fire led the city to file a $20-million lawsuit against the complex's developer, Geoffrey H. Palmer, and his company, G.H. Palmer Associates, claiming their negligence allowed the blaze to spread to other buildings and damage city property. According to the suit, the complex did not have firewalls or an adequate water supply to battle a potential blaze. The suit also contends Palmer Associates did not hire adequate security to prevent break-ins like the one that allowed Abdulwali to set the fire.

The city's claims board approved a settlement in that lawsuit on Monday, according to Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for the city attorney's office. Wilcox declined to provide specifics of the settlement, which he said will be forwarded to the City Council for approval.

Calls and emails seeking comment from G.H. Palmer Associates were not immediately returned.

For more breaking crime news in California, follow @JamesQueallyLAT and @marisagerber on Twitter.

UPDATES:

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5:45 p.m.: This story was updated with comments from Abdulwali's public defender and the Los Angeles city attorney's office.

12:45 p.m.: This story was updated with additional background about the case and details from a probation report.

This story was first published at 10:50 a.m.

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