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Man Arraigned in Laguna Fire but Guilt Is Doubted


LAGUNA NIGUEL — A 26-year-old man was arraigned Monday on charges of setting last year's devastating Laguna Beach fire, but a few hours before the proceeding Orange County investigators had acknowledged to a Mexican prison warden that they believe the man was imprisoned in Mexico when the fire was set.

After reviewing prison logs, medical records, photographs and fingerprints, as well as interviewing the man's cellmates and prison guards--who were shown the man's photograph--one of the investigators remarked, "We are talking about the same person," said Olga Leticia Aguayo, the director of the prison.

Orange County Chief Assistant Dist. Atty. Maurice Evans said investigators are still looking into the alibi of Jose Soto Martinez, 26, who was imprisoned in Mexico under the name of Jaime Saille Higuera. Despite the latest developments, Martinez was arraigned for allegedly setting the fire, which damaged or destroyed 441 homes and caused $528 million in damage.

District attorney's officials said that, after conferring with their investigators in Mexico, they tried unsuccessfully to postpone the arraignment at which Martinez was formally notified of the charges against him.

Evans said he expects a decision to be made this week on whether to drop the Laguna Beach arson charge.

"Information has come to our attention, since we filed the case, indicating that perhaps Mr. Martinez did not set the fire and was in prison in Mexico. We are investigating Mr. Martinez's alibi," Evans said.

Appearing in Municipal Court in Laguna Niguel on Monday, the man known to Orange County authorities as Martinez entered a plea of not guilty.

At the arraignment, Deputy Public Defender Jim Egar, representing Martinez, angrily denounced law enforcement officials for repeatedly interrogating the defendant without having present--or even notifying--his attorney. Egar said Martinez has had an attorney since Sept. 20, after his arrest in connection with arson fires in Fullerton.

Martinez's Mexican prison record was confirmed just four days after Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi, Orange Fire Chief Larry Holms and other law enforcement officials held an elaborate press conference to announce that they had captured the man who "willingly and maliciously" set one of the nation's costliest fires.

News that Martinez may no longer be a suspect in the case upset Laguna residents and prompted criticism of the district attorney's office for filing a criminal complaint before it had thoroughly investigated the case.

"It's looks like they were a little premature," said Deputy Public Defender Frank Ospino, who is also representing Martinez.

Martinez became a suspect in the Laguna fire after he was arrested Sept. 16 on suspicion of starting three fires in Fullerton. Martinez told investigators he lit the Fullerton fire as well as other "big fires," including the Laguna blaze. He said he started the Laguna fire to commune with a demon god named Gotam.

Even though Martinez's confession seemed bizarre, investigators said they took him seriously because of detailed information he gave about the fire. Martinez led investigators to the exact flash point of the blaze and told them that no accelerants, only matches, were used, sources said.

Capizzi announced at Friday's press conference that prosecutors had ample evidence against Martinez and that they were "comfortable" they had the man responsible for the fires.

But the case against Martinez started to unravel less then 24 hours later when his mother, Teresa Campos, said her son confessed to the crimes because he was afraid that he had been marked for death by Mexican mobsters and because he suffers from mental problems.

Campos, who lives in Fullerton, said she could have proved to authorities that her son had an alibi, but she was not contacted by law enforcement officials until Saturday, after charges had been filed and the press conference was held.

Campos had contacted Fullerton police Sept. 19 to tell them that her son, whose real name she said is Jaime Saille, was missing. She gave police a photograph of her son, but they did not immediately make the connection that the man she said was Saille was the man they had in custody.

District attorney's officials said they first became aware of the alibi after Campos was quoted on the incident in local newspapers. Saturday, two Orange County investigators questioned Campos for several hours.

Monday, two Orange County investigators spent almost four hours in the Mazatlan prison in search of information to verify or disprove Campos' claim.

For much of the time, they huddled in the office of Aguayo, the prison director, who said the investigators compared the records of the man they know as Jose Soto Martinez with those of Jaime Saille Higuera.

The investigators showed Aguayo a grainy photograph of a sullen, unsmiling Martinez, whom Aguayo said she immediately recognized as her former prisoner named Saille.

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