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Transient Charged After Admitting He Set Laguna Blaze : Arson: Jose Soto Martinez confesses after arrest for lighting three small fires in Fullerton. He says he was trying to commune with a demon.

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

SANTA ANA — A 26-year-old transient was charged with arson Friday after telling investigators 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 sparking the Oct. 27 fire after being arrested for lighting three small fires in Fullerton, was being held without bail in the Orange County Jail.

At an afternoon press conference, law enforcement officials said Martinez "willfully and maliciously" set the blaze that, in a matter of a few hours, left the scenic beach community resembling a war zone.

In announcing the filing of charges against Martinez, Orange County Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi said the felony complaint in-volves "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 from the Laguna Beach police and fire departments, the Orange County Fire Department and the Fullerton police and fire departments. Fullerton authorities arrested Martinez Sept. 16 in connection with three fires in and around 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. Martinez identified an Aug. 5 brush fire on Green River Drive near Anaheim. He 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."

An illegal immigrant and transient who had $8.12 in his pockets when he was arrested, Martinez remains a mystery.

Official records indicate he has a previous arrest in San Diego County for first-degree burglary as a teen-ager, but was tried and convicted as an adult and sentenced to four years behind bars. According to Orange County jail booking records, he claimed he had AIDS and had attempted suicide.

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

"It was like kicking a rock and finding a gold nugget," Fullerton fire official John Clark said, noting the role luck might have played in the case.

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

At the same press 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 people who might have driven Martinez away from Laguna Beach after the fire.

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

Earlier Friday, investigators initially said they had regarded Martinez as merely a suspect they wanted to question. They acknowledged that it was not uncommon for people, particularly firebugs, to claim responsibility for large fires.

But Martinez's knowledge of details surrounding the start of the fire added credibility to his claims, investigators said. He led investigators to the exact location where the fire started. He also said he used matches--and 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.

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 community, 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 via boat to save their homes.

At the height of the fire, flames consumed an average of 45 acres and four homes per minute.

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

"Most importantly, I think this will help bring about closure to many of the victims," who could do little but watch helplessly as the fire scorched more than 14,000 acres and destroyed or severely damaged 441 homes, Purcell said.

Fullerton police arrested Martinez two weeks ago after police said he admitted he set fires behind a community college district administration office and in the laundry room of an adjacent apartment complex.

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