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Man Jailed at Time Cleared of Setting Laguna Firestorm

October 06, 1994|MARK PLATTE and MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

LAGUNA NIGUEL — Admitting they were duped by a bogus confession, Orange County prosecutors dismissed charges Wednesday against the man accused of setting last year's destructive Laguna Beach fire--charges that some fire officials said were filed hastily when details about the prime suspect began surfacing in the press.

"I think the suddenness of the inquiry and questions from you guys (in the media) put some pressure on the D.A. to file," said Fullerton Fire Chief Marc Martin, who was among those flanking Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi when the charges were announced Friday. Martin described that news conference as "put together hastily."

Added Fullerton Fire Marshal John Clark, whose firefighters captured Jose Soto Martinez at the scene of a Fullerton fire: "There was lots of pressure to put the story out because of the rumors that he was involved in the Laguna fire." Clark said he was informed of the Friday news conference about three hours before it began. Martinez is still in jail on charges that he set three small Fullerton fires.

In an interview, Capizzi acknowledged that the media played a part in determining the timing of the filing, but said the decision was not made in haste. "It had been a matter that had been investigated for two weeks. The fact that on Thursday members of the media became aware of it meant that it was no longer possible to do any confidential investigating."

He added that the evidence was "quite strong, and there was no reason to delay." He said the decision to proceed with charges immediately after the first newspaper reports was a "consensus" decision of the agencies involved.

Public defender Ronald Y. Butler, whose office is representing Martinez, said that the wrong person occasionally gets accused of a crime when prosecutors "rush to judgment" and don't do their homework.

"It happens every day that innocent people are arrested," Butler said. "But it never rises to the level of a press conference being called to announce that someone is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

One investigator involved in the case said that the district attorney's office was cautioned against filing the charges prematurely by one county official, and that there were suggestions that authorities should simply announce that Martinez had been jailed on suspicion of setting the Fullerton fires and had confessed to the Laguna fire. That way, authorities could have asked the public's help in verifying Martinez's claims.

The day after Martinez was accused of the Laguna fires, information surfaced that he was five months into a 14-month stint in a Mexican prison when the October, 1993, firestorm occurred.

Having confirmed his alibi with Mexican authorities, the district attorney's office filed a motion in South County Municipal Court on Wednesday to dismiss the charges involving the Laguna Beach fire, and to transfer the remaining charges on the Fullerton fires back to North County court.

The motion also included an extraordinary five-page declaration explaining the prosecutors' move and defending their original decision to charge Martinez with the fire, which destroyed or damaged 441 homes or businesses, causing $528 million in damage.

The document stated that "although Martinez admitted setting this (Laguna Beach) blaze several times, he did so with some hesitancy, leading investigators to believe he was telling the truth."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael L. Fell, who handled the case and made the motion in court Wednesday to drop the Laguna arson charge, said, "The information given to investigators was very concise. The information, drawings, statements, tenor and repeated consistency of his stories led us to believe that we actually had the suspect who started the Laguna Beach fires."

Fell said that on Sept. 19, Martinez guided Fullerton investigators--who did not know where the fire started--to within 10 feet of its point of origin.

According to the document filed in court, Martinez then proceeded to re-enact how he had set the fire, and "correctly indicated the device (used to start the fire), weather conditions and direction of the fire, once set."

Peering into the television cameras that lined the courtroom's jury box, Fell stressed that "at no time from Sept. 16 until (his Monday arraignment) did the defendant ever deny that . . . he started that fire.

"At no time did the defendant ever say he had an alibi or that he was in a Mexican prison. The defendant never said that he had family in the States; his contention was that his family was all in Mexico."

Martinez's mother has said, however, that her obviously disturbed son confessed to the fire because he felt safe behind bars and feared that Mexican mobsters were out to kill him.

South Court Municipal Judge Arthur G. Koelle granted Fell's motions, and also teased him for launching into an explanation of why the motion should be granted after the action had been taken.

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