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Suspicious Fires Probed for Ties to Gulf Tension : Crime: An arson unit studies a West Los Angeles market blaze and police label the torching of a Sherman Oaks store a likely hate crime. Owners of both businesses are of Mideast descent.

January 24, 1991|KENNETH REICH and RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Two suspicious fires gutted businesses owned by a Lebanese-American and an Iranian-Jewish immigrant in Sherman Oaks and the Pico-Robertson district of West Los Angeles late Tuesday night and early Wednesday.

Although the exact cause of the fires was not determined, authorities were investigating both as possibly being related to tensions over the Persian Gulf War. Los Angeles police labeled the Sherman Oaks blaze a likely hate crime.

Flames erupted at the Worldwide Coffee and Nuts shop on Woodman Avenue in Sherman Oaks shortly after 3 a.m. Wednesday, causing an estimated $85,000 damage.

Just two nights before, someone had spray-painted on the sidewalk at the shop's entrance, "Go home, . . . Arabs."

Detective Mel Arnold, hate crime coordinator at the Police Department's Van Nuys station, noted that the store's owner had received no threats before the outbreak of war last week.

"We're taking all necessary investigative steps," Arnold said. "And we're going to conduct our investigation as if it was related (to the war) until we learn otherwise."

The Los Angeles Fire Department, meanwhile, opened an arson investigation into the other blaze that seriously damaged the Elat Market on West Pico Boulevard and destroyed an adjoining stationery store and storage area. The fire, which occurred about 11 p.m. Tuesday, caused an estimated $325,000 damage.

"Because of the situation in the Middle East, we called for an arson unit right away," said Assistant Fire Chief Ed Allen. "The market is owned by a gentleman from Iran."

"The fire had a very good start," Allen added. "There was a lot of heavy smoke when the first companies arrived. It very quickly broke through the roof. When that happens, you take a hard look at it."

Although the owner, Ray Golbari, said repeatedly he thought the fire was "just an accident," some neighbors said it was possible someone had started the fire in the mistaken belief that Golbari is of Arab, rather than Jewish, descent.

The Elat Market has signs in both Hebrew and Persian script on the front, but Golbari said the Persian script is sometimes misread as Arabic.

There have been two other suspicious fires in the Pico-Robertson district in recent weeks. One occurred Dec. 27 at an insurance agency, and another on the night of Jan. 17 at a hot dog stand.

Officials for both Arab-American and Jewish organizations deplored any possible arson.

"This is the kind of violence that we have been warning the authorities that the Arab-American community would be subjected to," said Nazih Bayda, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

David Lehrer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, said of the Sherman Oaks fire: "Clearly, if it is a hate crime, it disturbs us. We are all very tense and these are difficult times. But none of us will tolerate the visiting on our shores of foreign disputes."

Times staff writers Josh Meyer and Jack Cheevers contributed to this story.

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