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17 Counts to Be Sought Against Arson Suspect

November 17, 1988|CRAIG QUINTANA | Times Staff Writer

POMONA — Arson investigators will ask the district attorney's office today to seek a 17-count criminal complaint against a man described as a "firebug" and suspected of setting 27 blazes in a 12-day arson spree this month.

Jim Asoau, 29, who is unemployed, has admitted setting the fires, which caused an estimated $600,000 in damage, Fire Chief Thomas J. Fee said.

Asoau, who was arrested Saturday on an unrelated charge, is being held in lieu of $1-million bail. If convicted on all 17 counts, Asoau could face 62 years in prison.

11 Blazes in 1 Day

Two minor injuries resulted from the fires, set from Nov. 1 through Saturday at 22 locations, including schools, homes and commercial properties, investigators said. Fires were set several times at the same location.

During the spree, investigators said the number of fires kept increasing each day until last Thursday, when 11 were set.

Asoau was originally arrested in connection with an auto break-in on Saturday, hours after the last blaze was set. While Asoau was being arrested, informants indicated to police that he had set the fires, said Lyn Rochelle, fire division chief.

"We interviewed the suspect at length, during which time he admitted setting fires in the city of Pomona," Rochelle said Tuesday at a press conference.

Fire officials said Asoau lived in Pomona intermittently over the last 16 years.

He has claimed that he set another fire 4 months ago in a commercial area and set fires in surrounding cities over the past 16 years, Rochelle said.

An arson task force representing the fire departments of Pomona, Montclair, Upland and Ontario will discuss the claims this week.

Because the injuries were minor, the Fire Department only asked that Asoau be charged with arson, Rochelle said.

"We were very fortunate to have this many fires and not have a serious injury," said Fire Investigator Russ Bohse.

Even after interviewing the suspect, investigators said they could not explain the spree. Asoau has no previous arson-related convictions, Bohse said.

"We haven't determined why he was setting the fires," Bohse said.

Rochelle declined to say whether any identification or evidence was gathered at the scene of any of the fires that may have been used in making the case against Asoau.

Rochelle said Asoau may have set more fires than any other individual in the city's history.

"We were extremely lucky that the dollars in damage was low," Rochelle said. "He has set more fires over a shorter period of time than anyone I've encountered in my career."

The total damage at the arson sites could have been $8 million were it not for speedy alarms, either called in by the suspect or residents, Rochelle said.

The worst fire occurred at Park West High School, where damage totaled $500,000, Rochelle said.

Two portable classrooms and a storage facility were damaged in a fire last Friday at Park West, a 600-student school that houses vocational training and continuing-education and special programs.

Originally, Asoau's bail was set at $2,500 on the auto burglary charge, but was increased to $1 million Tuesday by Pomona Municipal Court Judge Jack P. Hunt after the arson allegations came to light. Asoau remains in custody at the Pomona Jail.

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