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Suspect in Mexican Jail During Laguna Fire, Warden Says : Investigation: Orange County authorities are to examine records in Mazatlan. Some officials remain sure they have the right man.

October 02, 1994|KEVIN JOHNSON and GEBE MARTINEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The 26-year-old transient who is charged with igniting last year's destructive Laguna Beach firestorm was in a Mazatlan, Mexico, jail at the time of the blaze, the jail director told a Mazatlan journalist Saturday.

Mexican government records indicate that 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 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, a transient 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 on charges of 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. 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 fires was supported Saturday by relatives at their home in Fullerton. Martinez's mother, Maria Teresa Campos, 52, and other relatives met with investigators from the Orange County district attorney's office Saturday night. Campos also has said that her son was in jail at the time of the Laguna Beach fire.

Jesus Urbina, 29, Martinez's brother-in-law, said the family had proof that Martinez was in jail, serving about an 18-month sentence, during the Laguna Beach fire.

"We have the papers," he said. "We have proof. When the Laguna Beach fire happened he was in El Cerezo." Urbia would not share the documents with The Times.

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

Urbina, looking exhausted, said he did not believe that his brother-in-law was delusional, but that he lied because he genuinely believed his life was in danger.

Despite evidence suggesting that Martinez may 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 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 in the Southland before charges were filed.

"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."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Mike Fell refused to comment on the case and McKinley said he did not know whether other investigators in the case knew of the family's assertions or were able to verify them.

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

"This is the first I've heard of it," Purcell said of the possible alibi. "Clearly, no one would want to have the wrong person sitting in jail."

Nevertheless, Purcell also said there is substantial evidence that continues to implicate Martinez as the prime suspect.

"From everything I am aware of, it is pretty conclusive. I would defy anyone to lead you to the exact spot where the fire started," Purcell said, adding that Martinez did that for authorities last week.

Fullerton police arrested Martinez Sept. 16 after authorities said he admitted setting fires behind a community college district administration office and in the laundry room of an adjacent apartment complex. He later made statements implicating himself in the Laguna Beach fire, prosecutors have said.

Martinez told authorities he set the Laguna fire to conjure up a demon king named Gotam.

Times staff writer Matt Lait contributed to this story.

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