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Paraplegic Rescued From Fire Not Certain He Received Threat

December 11, 1991|CATHERINE GEWERTZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Fountain Valley paraplegic who was rescued from an arson-caused fire at his home last week has recanted his claim that only hours before the blaze, someone telephoned him and warned, "You are going to fry."

Police investigating the fire at the home of retired businessman George Smyrniotis, 60, said Tuesday that he is no longer certain that he received such a phone call.

"He told us that he might have imagined it," Fountain Valley Police Sgt. Darryl Nance said. "But we still consider him credible. The guy was under a lot of stress at the time, his house having caught fire and all."

Smyrniotis has suggested that the Dec. 4 fire might have been started by former business partners as a bitter dispute neared trial in Long Beach Superior Court.

That 4-year-old lawsuit involves Smyrniotis' claim that his partners sold his leasehold interest in a valuable Santa Ana property without his permission. The case, set for trial Dec. 5, has been postponed until Dec. 19 for reasons unrelated to the fire.

Defendants in the suit have angrily denied any implication that they might be linked to the fire.

Despite Smyrniotis' revision of his story about the threatening phone call, Nance said, police remain certain that the fire was arson and are still investigating it as a possible attempted murder, as well as exploring its possible relationship to the civil suit.

Nance noted that Smyrniotis alerted police in October after he had received a string of "harassing but not threatening" phone calls that he believed were related to the lawsuit.

"We're looking at the possibility that they're connected," Nance said. "The case was nearing trial, and they had been trying to persuade him to settle it. But we're keeping an open mind. We're looking at anything and everything."

Smyrniotis was resting at Humana Hospital-Huntington Beach and was not available to discuss the case Tuesday evening.

But one defendant in the lawsuit, attorney Theodore Batsakis, said that Smyrniotis' recantation says something important about him.

"It reflects his character," Batsakis said. "It shows he imagines a lot of things, including (the allegations of) this lawsuit, saying that we didn't have the authority to sell that property. Ever since he was paralyzed (in a car accident), he's become bitter."

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