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Transient Held in Devastating Laguna Fire

October 01, 1994|MATT LAIT and JEFF BRAZIL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTA ANA — A 26-year-old transient was charged with arson Friday after telling investigators that he started the $528 million Laguna Beach fire last October in an effort to commune with a demon.

Jose Soto Martinez, who authorities said confessed to setting the Oct. 27 fire after being arrested on charges of lighting three small fires in Fullerton, was being held without bail in the Orange County Jail.

At an afternoon news conference, law enforcement officials said Martinez "willfully and maliciously" set the blaze that in a few hours devastated the scenic beach community.

In announcing the filing of four charges of arson against Martinez, Orange County Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi said the felony complaint involves "four counts of arson of interest to thousands if not millions of people here in Orange County and Southern California."

Joining officials from the district attorney's office were representatives of the Laguna Beach Police and Fire Departments, the Orange County Fire Department and the Fullerton Police and Fire Departments. Fullerton authorities arrested Martinez on Sept. 16 in connection with three fires at an apartment complex.

During questioning after the arrest, Martinez told investigators he was also responsible for other "big fires" in the area, according to court documents. He identified an Aug. 5 brush fire on Green River Drive near Anaheim and later made statements implicating himself in the Laguna fire, law enforcement sources said.

Sources also confirmed that Martinez told police he set the fire to conjure up a demon king named Gotam.

A transient who had $8.12 in his pockets when he was arrested, Martinez remains mostly a mystery.

Official records indicate that he was arrested in San Diego County for burglary as a teen-ager and had a troubled past. According to jail booking records, he had attempted suicide.

Until his arrest in the Fullerton fires, Martinez had not been considered a possible suspect by the Laguna investigators, authorities said.

"It was like kicking a rock and finding a gold nugget," said Fullerton fire official John Clark.

Martinez is scheduled to be arraigned Monday. If convicted on all four counts of arson, he would face a maximum of 30 years in prison.

At the same news conference, authorities also announced that they are seeking information from a man identified only as Mike, who apparently stayed with Martinez the night before the Laguna fire. They are also seeking anyone who may have driven Martinez away from Laguna Beach after the fire was started.

When asked if Martinez was believed to have acted alone, Capizzi said authorities have the man they believe is responsible for the blaze.

Investigators said they initially regarded Martinez as merely a suspect. They acknowledged that it was not uncommon for people, particularly fire bugs, to claim responsibility for large fires.

But his knowledge of details surrounding the start of the fire added a measure of credibility to Martinez's claims, investigators said. He led investigators to the exact location where the fire started. He also said he used matches--not an accelerant--and that too is consistent with investigators' findings.

"We take everybody seriously that comes up with something like this--short of the ones that were beamed out of the spaceship," said Dan Runnestrand, chief investigator for the Orange County Fire Department.

"I think, most importantly, this will help bring about closure to many of the victims," said Laguna Beach Police Chief Neil Purcell, who watched helplessly last October as the fire scorched more than 14,000 acres and destroyed or severely damaged 441 homes.

"We are very pleased with the fact that we have a solid suspect in custody," Purcell said, adding that it had been a "very trying situation the entire year for these people" who lost their homes.

Powered by Santa Ana winds, the October fire raced up Laguna Canyon and engulfed hillside homes overlooking the heart of Laguna Beach. As firefighters from around Southern California converged on the beach town, it took on a surreal appearance, with helicopters darting about overhead, fatigue-clad troops in the streets and residents, cut off by closed highways, frantically trying to return to the community by boat to save their homes.

Witnesses to the Fullerton fires told authorities they saw Martinez try to spark the blazes. After his capture, Martinez seemed calm, witnesses and court records said, saying matter-of-factly that it was his "job" to light fires.

Martinez's arrest and statements to police resurrected an investigation that had all but come to a halt.

After going through the painstaking process of tracking down about 500 dead-end leads, investigators had lost hope of ever solving the case. The arrest has investigators believing at least temporarily that they will be able to close the book on one of the costliest fires in state history.

"With all fires, unless you have the suspect early on, you can only hope that something comes up, and that's why we must look at all leads," Runnestrand said.

Laguna Beach residents and officials expressed anger and relief Friday.

"If this man is indeed guilty, I am greatly relieved that his days of starting fires are over," said Councilman Robert F. Gentry. "This is obviously a man with some mental illness and maybe there's going to be a chance of some therapy. But my primary feeling is that he's off the street, he can't light his matches anymore and bring devastation to another community."

Times staff writers Mark Platte, Lee Romney, Rebecca Trounson and Tony Perry contributed to this story.

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