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Charges Dropped in Laguna Arson When 'Confession' Is Proved Bogus : Courts: O.C. prosecutors admit they were duped, verify suspect was in Mexican jail during last year's firestorm.

October 06, 1994|MATT LAIT and MICHAEL GRANBERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

LAGUNA NIGUEL — Admitting they were duped by a bogus confession, Orange County prosecutors on Wednesday dropped an arson charge against the man accused of sparking last year's Laguna Beach firestorm.

The stunning dismissal of the most serious of four arson charges against Jose Soto Martinez, 26, came after investigators belatedly discovered that he was locked up in a Mexican prison when the fire was set last Oct. 27.

"I had a lot of faith that (a conviction) couldn't happen because of all the proof we had," said Teresa Campos, Martinez's mother, who told investigators her son had an ironclad alibi. "I knew he was innocent. And now I feel very contented, happy."

Sometime after he was arrested Sept. 16 in connection with starting three small fires in Fullerton, Martinez told investigators that he also had set the Laguna blaze. In what prosecutors said was surprisingly accurate detail, he described where and how the fire was lit, and explained that he started the blaze to conjure up a demon god named Gotam.

Based on his confession, Orange County Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi announced at a press conference last Friday that he had filed charges against the man "responsible" for "willfully and maliciously" starting the devastating fire, which damaged or destroyed 441 homes and caused $528 million in damage.

But the district attorney's case started to unravel less than a day later when Martinez's mother, who had reported her son missing and was unaware that he had been arrested, was quoted in a newspaper saying her son was serving time in a Mexican prison 1,200 miles away when the firestorm occurred. She said her son confessed only because he is delusional and believes mobsters want to kill him. She said he thought he would be safe in jail.

That was the first time prosecutors had heard of a possible alibi. Martinez, whose true name is Jaime Saille Higuera, never even told investigators that he had family in Orange County.

Following that published report, investigators interviewed the mother and flew to Mexico to verify Martinez's record at the prison in Mazatlan. After reviewing the information, which included fingerprints, medical records and interviews with the prison warden and inmates, the investigators determined that Martinez had been incarcerated from May 15, 1993--five months before the Laguna fire--until July 8, 1994--eight months after the fire.

Campos, 50, said she did not feel any anger at the Orange County district attorney's office for filing the arson charges against her son.

"No. No, I don't feel anger," said Campos, who attended the court hearing with other family members. "I knew that he had a problem. He has this (mental) problem. But I knew that the system here, given proof that he was somewhere else, that said he was in jail at the time, that he would be found not guilty."

Martinez is still being held without bail in Orange County Jail for the three other arson charges stemming from the Fullerton fires, and Riverside County authorities have not ruled him out as a suspect in an Aug. 5 brush fire at Green River.

Victims of last year's horrifying Laguna fire, who were elated last week when they heard that the arsonist responsible for the blaze had been arrested and charged, said Wednesday that their hopes have been dashed. The residents of the upscale beach community, however, said they would rather have the charge dropped than convict an innocent man.

"Obviously, we're disappointed," said Kathleen Blackburn, a Laguna Beach councilwoman. "Thank heaven they recognized he was wasn't the one. I hope they do find the person responsible. It would give our residents a sense of closure to a rather unattractive incident. . . . (But) it would have been nice if he was the one."

Orange County fire officials, who had stopped actively investigating the case about three months ago and reopened it only when Martinez confessed to starting the blaze, said Wednesday they were also disappointed.

"It's frustrating that the person who did this is still out there, although nobody wants to see someone in jail who is wrongly accused," said Orange County Fire Capt. Dan Young. "We had more than a thousand leads and nothing. This came along and we reopened the case. But now we have no other leads."

County Fire Chief Larry J. Holms said the investigation "is still open" and he did not fault the district attorney's decision to charge Martinez with setting the Laguna blaze.

"Naturally, we are disappointed that at this point in time we don't have the specific answer as to who started the fire," he said. "Based on information available to the D.A. and investigators, they proceeded in the appropriate manner on what appeared to be a solid case. I would have done the same thing."

Even after the charge was dismissed, law enforcement officials said they were perplexed as to how Martinez might have had such intimate knowledge about the Laguna fire, especially since he was in prison at the time.

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