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Fire Suspect's Lies May Work to His Advantage : Court: Defense attorney says two arson charges in Fullerton case should be dismissed because Jose Soto Martinez lacks credibility.


FULLERTON — The credibility of arson suspect Jose Soto Martinez has been so undermined by his own lies that his entire confession should be thrown out and at least two of the three remaining arson charges against him should be dropped, his defense attorney said Friday.

Earlier this week, the district attorney was forced to dismiss the most serious charge against Martinez--that he set last year's Laguna Beach firestorm--after discovering that his confession to that blaze was a twisted fantasy. Deputy Public Defender Frank Ospino says his client's comments regarding three Fullerton fires set Sept. 16 are probably just as erroneous.

"We've seen how unreliable his statements have been, yet how believable," Ospino said. "Only his statements tie him to two of the three Fullerton fires."

At the third fire, Martinez, 26, was captured by bystanders who said they spotted him near some smoldering brush. No witnesses saw Martinez igniting the fire, but he was caught with a cigarette lighter in hand, fire officials have said.

After a brief court hearing, Ospino called upon the district attorney to drop at least two of the three Fullerton arson charges. At Friday's hearing, Fullerton Municipal Judge Stephen J. Sundvold scheduled hearing dates to determine Martinez's bail, to consider motions for discovery and to hold a preliminary hearing.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Fell, citing the pending trial, declined to discuss the Fullerton case or any evidence against Martinez besides his challenged confession.

Martinez, whose true name is Jaime Saille Higuera, is being held without bail in the Orange County Jail. If convicted of the three arson charges against him, Martinez faces a maximum prison term of 19 years, 8 months, compared to the 30-year sentence he faced with the Laguna charge.

If his defense attorney succeeds in getting two of the three remaining charges dismissed, the punishment he faces could be more than cut in half.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys agree that Martinez is mentally disturbed, but they differ on what, and how much to believe of Martinez's statements after he was arrested. Both sides acknowledge that Martinez's credibility and his statements will be central issues in court.

"Everything he said is questionable and suspect," Ospino said.

"Obviously, it will cause a substantial problem for the prosecution," added Public Defender Ronald Y. Butler.

Many law enforcement officials are still perplexed over how they could have fallen for Martinez's bogus story. Some even speculate that Martinez would have been convicted easily on the strength of that conviction had it not been for his mother informing investigators that her son was actually in a Mexican prison when the Oct. 27, 1993, fire was started.

The fire damaged or destroyed more than 440 structures and caused $528 million in damage.

Since Martinez's confession was debunked, questions have been raised regarding the thoroughness of the investigation, including whether investigators prodded Martinez into the Laguna confession and coached him on where and how the fire was set.

Fullerton Police Chief Patrick McKinley said Friday that he is still convinced that Martinez had something to do with the Laguna fire, although he has backed off initial pronouncements he would bet six months' salary on it.

"I wish I had never said that," McKinley said. "But I was so positive because of the evidence. I have never been so baffled by something in my life. I have a lot of time in police work and have been around a lot of heavyweight things and I've never seen the evidence in a case that was so overwhelming."

One major piece of corroborating evidence that law enforcement officials have repeatedly cited in explaining why Martinez's confession was so convincing was his ability to take fire investigators to the point where the fire was started. Originally, they said that only two people knew the precise spot.

But now they acknowledge that the flash point for the fire, which is visible from one of the most heavily traveled roads in the county, was marked with yellow crime-scene tape for "a number of days" after the fire. Furthermore, several weeks after the fire, investigators went to the site and handed out flyers to passing motorists, asking if any had observed any suspicious activity at that spot around the time of the fire. McKinley said Martinez led Fullerton police investigators to within 10 feet of the fire's origin after initially walking across the spot and standing on a small bluff nearby, claiming it to be the point of ignition.

But Orange County fire investigators watching from a distance radioed ahead to Fullerton police and said Martinez was not standing near the spot where the fire started. Fullerton officers were used because Martinez despises firefighters, fire officials say.

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