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Leaks to Press Prompted D.A.'s Rush to File Charges

October 06, 1994|MARK PLATTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Orange County prosecutors rushed to file criminal charges against Jose Soto Martinez for the Laguna Beach firestorm because details about their prime suspect began surfacing in the press. But at least one investigator cautioned against acting prematurely, saying that more information could be gathered with an appeal to the public.

"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 last Friday. Martin described the press conference as "put together hastily."

Added Fullerton Fire Marshal John Clark, whose firefighters captured 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 press conference about three hours before it began.

In an interview, Capizzi acknowledged that the media played a part in the timing of the charges, 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, and he was unaware of suggestions that a public appeal for information might help the case.

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

"It happens every day that innocent people are arrested," Butler noted, "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 prosecutors brushed aside a suggestion that authorities simply announce Martinez had been jailed for three small Fullerton fires and had confessed to the Laguna fire. That way, authorities could have asked the public's help in verifying Martinez's claims.

Had that scenario been followed, prosecutors might have been spared the embarrassment of having to drop the charges against Martinez only five days after they were announced with much fanfare.

The day after he was accused of the Laguna fire and Martinez's booking photograph appeared in newspapers and on television, information surfaced that the 26-year-old transient 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 three small Fullerton fires back to North County court.

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

The document filed in court 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."

Martinez still faces three felony counts in connection with the Fullerton fires, the same charges that would have kept him behind bars while his claims to be the Laguna Beach arsonist were investigated further.

"There was no hurry to file because we had this guy on a no-bail hold" for the Fullerton fires, said one source who asked not to be identified. "I think this was a political decision because of all the anti-illegal immigrant sentiment out there."

Martinez's immigration status is in dispute. On the day of the press conference, he was said to be an illegal immigrant, but that has been denied by the family.

According to officials familiar with the investigation, there was no talk of filing charges against Martinez even the day before Capizzi made his announcement.

"The feeling was, we didn't have to hurry the filing and we were still trying to investigate, even though we thought we had a strong case. Then on Friday morning, we found out there was going to be a press conference," one official said.

Although county fire officials wanted the information about Martinez kept quiet for as long as possible, Orange County Fire Chief Larry J. Holms said he fully supported Capizzi's decision to file charges when he did.

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