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Nabbing Suspect Could Net $50,000 : Reward: College maintenance worker who detained Martinez remembers offers made at the time of the fire.

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

FULLERTON — Joe Frank Otero remembers the talk of the reward clearly now. Last year, after a wildfire destroyed sections of Laguna Beach, Otero recalled that someone, somewhere was offering money leading to the capture of whoever set the fire.

Well, it appears that Otero might just be due the $50,000 that Gov. Pete Wilson offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person the governor described as "the sick animal who did this thing."

Otero, a 29-year-old divorced father of two girls, was one of several employees from the North Orange County Community College District first on the scene of the fire behind the administration headquarters on Sept. 16.

The employees had helped put out the first fire in the area, and four hours later, there was a second fire. Otero couldn't believe it was happening again and he was right in the middle of it.

Although Tom Harris, the district's chancellor, pointed to someone hiding in the bushes who turned out to be Martinez, it was Otero who tracked him down and ordered him to crawl up a steep hill on his stomach. Otero made sure that Martinez never had a chance to grab anything from the ground.

"He wanted to stand up and I said, 'You are going to crawl up this hill,' " Otero said. "Every time he started to raise his hand up, I pushed it right back down. I thought he might reach for a beer bottle or something."

At the top of the hill, Otero was joined by his boss, Ron Beeler, who turned Martinez over to authorities. Then Otero grabbed the Bic lighter that Martinez had tossed to the ground.

A fire captain noticed a hunting knife in Martinez's pocket, which unnerved Otero.

"I must have had my guardian angel with me that day," Otero said. "When I came home, I told my roommate, 'Why didn't he try and do anything with that knife?' "

Otero wouldn't mind having the $50,000 right now. In fact, he wants to know exactly how to go about getting it.

"It's still up for grabs, ain't it?" he asked. "The chancellor's not the one who caught him. I'm the one who caught him."

On Friday, shortly after charges were filed against the suspected arsonist, the governor's office said it was "premature right now" to discuss the reward.

"There will have to be a conviction before somebody could collect," said Paul Kranhold, a spokesman for Wilson's office.

And even then, the governor might not dole out the cash.

"It's information leading to the arrest and conviction," Kranhold stressed, adding that merely detaining the suspected arsonist might not qualify.

"I would defer to the lawyers on that," he said.

If Otero had the money, he'd buy himself a house. For the past 10 years and eight months, he's been a maintenance worker for the community college district. The extra money would help. He has two daughters, ages 8 and 6.

The fire in Laguna is still vivid in Otero's mind.

"I remember all those houses getting destroyed and it was so sad," Otero said. "You can't replace the things you have."

Reflecting on his role in the apprehension of the man charged with arson in one of the biggest fires in memory, Otero became pragmatic.

"The money ain't the thing," he said. "It's like you might have put someone away who won't start fires no more. If I could do it again, I would. Because a lot of people got hurt and all those houses you just can't replace."

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