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Fire Suspect Was Jailed at the Time, Official Says : Arson: Director of Mexican lockup calls it impossible that transient who confessed could have set Laguna blaze.


The man charged with igniting last year's destructive Laguna Beach firestorm was behind bars in a jail in Mazatlan, Mexico, at the time of the blaze, the jail director told a Mexican journalist on Saturday.

Mexican government records indicate that 26-year-old Jose Soto Martinez was jailed May 15, 1993, and did not leave until July 8, 1994, said journalist Fernando Zepeda Hurtado, who spoke to the jail director on behalf of the Los Angeles Times.

The Laguna Beach fire erupted on Oct. 27, 1993. It damaged or destroyed 441 homes and caused $528 million in damage after it raced up Laguna Canyon and scorched more than 14,000 acres.

Martinez, arrested Sept. 16 in Fullerton after he was caught lighting small fires behind an apartment complex, has confessed to setting those fires and the Laguna blaze, authorities said. On Friday, he was charged with four felony arson counts and could face a maximum of 30 years in prison.

But Leticia Aguayo, director of the El Cerezo jail in Mazatlan, told the Mexican journalist that it would be impossible for the former prisoner to have set the fire during the time he was imprisoned for residential burglary. He paid an undisclosed fine on the day of his release from jail.

Orange County law enforcement authorities were expected in Mazatlan on Sunday to retrieve the jail's records, Zepeda Hurtado said.

Martinez served time in Mexico under the name of Jaime Saile Higuera. His family knows him as "Jaime." The birth date on Higuera's prison forms matches Martinez's birth date.

The claim that Martinez was in jail and could not have set the Laguna fire was supported by family members at the home of Martinez's 52-year-old mother, Maria Teresa Campos, in Fullerton on Saturday.

Campos and her family met with investigators from the Orange County district attorney's office for more than an hour Saturday night. They taped interviews with family members, took the prison documents to make copies and said they would review the case to determine whether charges should be dropped, said investigator David E. Tuttle.

Jesus Urbina, 29, Martinez's brother-in-law, said the family had proof that Martinez was in jail, doing about a year-and-a-half sentence, during the Laguna fire.

"We have the papers," he said. "We have proof. When the Laguna Beach fire happened he was in El Cerezo."

Urbina, who lives in Tijuana with Miriam Urbina, Martinez's sister, said Martinez "told lies because he thought people we're following him and wanted to kill him. He was afraid. They were real fears."

Looking exhausted, Urbina said that he did not believe his brother-in-law was delusional but that he lied because he genuinely believed his life was in danger from those in Mazatlan whose house he broke into.

Despite evidence that Martinez might not have started the Laguna fire, some law enforcement officials were still confident that they had the correct suspect.

Fullerton Police Chief Patrick McKinley, one of several law enforcement officials who triumphantly announced Friday that the case had been broken, said Saturday that he remains confident authorities have charged the right man.

"This is the first I've heard of an alibi," McKinley said, adding that the department was unaware Martinez had any relatives here before the charges were filed Friday.

"We'll check this out. If he was in a jail at that time, it should be easy enough to find out. You know, mothers will say anything for their sons. I've got six months' pay that says he set that fire. I'd be shocked if he was in jail at that time."

Campos and three family members arrived at the Orange County Jail early Saturday morning before the start of visitation hours. As she waited to see her son in what would be their first meeting in weeks, Campos perused newspaper accounts of her son's arrest and confession to police.

Asked if it were possible that her son could have ignited the fires, she emphatically replied, "No, no, no."

After a 25-minute visit, Campos descended the stairs, wiping tears from her eyes. "I can't talk right now," she said.

Until Friday, Campos was unaware that her son was in custody. She filed a missing persons report with Fullerton police on Sept. 19. She gave them a photograph of her son, but police did not immediately make the connection that Campos' son was Martinez.

Urbina, Martinez's brother-in-law, said Martinez lived with him and his wife in Tijuana after his release from prison, and Martinez got a job fumigating at local markets. Martinez has also lived with relatives in Corona and with his mother and stepfather in Fullerton but was not a transient, Urbina said. Martinez's father, Urbina said, lives in Arizona.

Recently, Martinez had a job making aluminum doors in Fullerton, Urbina said. Campos, his mother, is a diabetic and extremely distraught over the ordeal, family members said.

Laguna Beach Police Chief Neil J. Purcell Jr. said the jail story "throws an interesting wrinkle into the mix that must be investigated.

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