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THE SAFETY ZONE | Spotlight | JERRY HICKS

Slip-Up May Put Arsonist Behind Bars

November 27, 2000|JERRY HICKS

He must have figured it would burn in the fire.

Just a narrow sheet of white paper, barely more than a scrap, with digital letters and numbers. It was a Ralphs supermarket receipt, showing a single purchase, $2.99 plus tax.

For a small bottle of lighter fluid.

On a mild Wednesday, Nov. 24, of last year, just after noon, someone sneaked into the storage area of the Guitar Center on El Toro Road in Lake Forest and ignited a fire that caused $200,000 in damage. Most of the loss was from the destruction of stored musical instruments.

The fire would have been worse except for a sprinkler system activated by the blaze. Later, sifting through the burnt debris, investigators from the Orange County Fire Authority discovered a plastic bag containing the Ralphs receipt, wet but intact.

"It's the kind of lucky break you need but rarely get," said Fire Authority Capt. Paul Hunter.

Crime investigations often hinge on lucky breaks. The primary suspect in this arson could never have figured that that receipt could lead to his grainy picture in the newspaper.

Right now he's just a nameless man pictured holding a bottle of lighter fluid. Fire authorities seek the public's help in identifying him.

Here's how investigators got his picture:

Fire Authority arson investigators took the receipt to Ralphs on Culver Drive in Irvine. Any chance you might have picked up the man making the purchase on security video camera? they asked. No, was the answer. But there were video shots of customers in the aisles from that day. Maybe that would show something.

Another lucky break.

At 11:35 a.m., a white male in a dark jacket, wearing dark shoes, is shown carrying a small bottle of lighter fluid. It was just minutes later that the purchase time was punched on the receipt (11:46) and less than an hour later that the fire broke out.

The pictures are blurry. But authorities hope they're clear enough that someone can identify him.

Who is the man at Ralphs? And if he's responsible for the fire, why did he set it?

Capt. Hunter says investigators believe whoever set the fire is either an obsessed arsonist or someone upset with the guitar store about something.

Investigators thought there was a good chance their man was angry over a purchase at the store. However, they have been hampered, Hunter said, by the Guitar Center's refusal to turn over its customer lists.

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Anthony Riedelsheimer, a night manager at the Guitar Center, said the store doesn't want to impede the investigation.

"But it's difficult enough to get names and addresses from customers just for handling their warranties," he said. "Many of them would be upset to think that we turned their names over to the police or someone like that."

The Guitar Center is so large it sells instruments and musical items in nine rooms, mostly guitars, drums, and keyboards.

The fire began in one of the storage racks, Hunter said. Most of the damage came from smoke and water. The receipt was found just a few feet away.

Anyone who can identify the man in the Ralphs picture is asked to call the Fire Authority at (714) 289-6526. Investigators will respect a caller's anonymity.

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