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Martinez Was Calm During Arrest : Arson: Witnesses say he was led 'like a lamb' to authorities after he was found near scene of three Fullerton fires.

October 01, 1994|MARK PLATTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FULLERTON — The man now charged with igniting one of California's worst wildfires meekly emerged from the shrubbery behind an apartment complex here two weeks ago, readily confessed to setting three fires that day, and held his head in his hands, witnesses said.

"He was like a lamb," said Tony Haynes, the manager of the 42-unit apartment complex where one of the three fires was set. "It was almost like he wanted to get caught."

He and other witnesses on the day Jose Soto Martinez was arrested described him as a confused and embarrassed young man who was led gently by the shirt collar into the arms of a Fullerton fire captain. He carried a Bic lighter and a hunting knife, police said.

Three fires had been set that day. One ignited the six-foot wooden fence that separates the Hillcrest Glen Apartments with the offices of the North Orange County Community College District. District maintenance employees and those from nearby Fullerton College ran to douse the blaze and called the Fire Department.

A few hours later, Haynes was making his rounds at the apartment complex when he saw a fire in a laundry room trash bin and extinguished it. By 2 p.m., a third fire had been set near the area where the fence had burned.

This time, the maintenance employees and the district chancellor were on the scene almost immediately. Ron Beeler, the director of maintenance and facilities at Fullerton College, said Martinez was surrounded by four men, including Chancellor Tom Harris.

Harris spotted Martinez and ordered him not to move. Joe Frank Otero, a maintenance man, pointed a fire extinguisher at Martinez and made him crawl up a steep slope until he was handed over to fire officials. Otero said he would not let Martinez up off his stomach for fear that Martinez might try something. After Martinez was turned over to authorities, Otero walked back down the hill and retrieved the Bic lighter.

"He was acting weird," Otero said. "He was very confused."

Said Beeler: "He was very passive. He did not try and make a move. When he went to the fire officials, he admitted to setting the fire. He seemed to understand all the questions being asked of him. I was very, very surprised that he would answer so candidly."

Fire officials asked Martinez if he burned the fence, police said, to which Martinez replied: "Yeah. I burnt the fence. That's my job."

Martinez was booked on three counts of arson. Four charges of arson related to the Laguna fires were added Friday.

The day after the fire, Haynes said, police escorted Martinez back to the scene and had him retrace his steps, pointing out where he set the blazes.

For Haynes and others, the news that Martinez has been charged with the Laguna fire was exciting.

"Life is so dull and then something like this happens," Haynes said. "This just livens everything up."

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