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Firefighter's Ordeal Hasn't Ended With Dismissal of His Arson Case

Investigation: Former unit spokesman is in limbo. D.A. considers refiling charges for which judge saw insufficient evidence.

July 20, 2002|DAREN BRISCOE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Six grim-faced deputies marched into Los Angeles County Fire Department headquarters on the morning of Feb. 14. Busy working the phone in his cubicle, a public information officer named Roland Sprewell hardly noticed them pass.

A few minutes later, Sprewell's boss approached, ashen-faced, and summoned him to a conference room. The deputies were waiting. One held a felony arrest warrant bearing the names of Sprewell and his wife:

On or about July 26, 2001 ... Roland Lee Sprewell and Heidi Pauline Sprewell ... did willfully, unlawfully and maliciously set fire to and burn a structure ... at 1541 N. Raymond Ave. in Pasadena.

Sprewell, a firefighter for 18 of his 37 years, was intimate with fire's capacity to destroy. He was about to learn even more. The way authorities were telling it, the same man who had fielded media inquiries as a county Fire Department spokesman had torched a house after his attempt to purchase it had fallen through.

A judge dismissed the prosecution's circumstantial case last month before it ever got to trial. But the dismissal is small consolation to Sprewell. The district attorney has threatened to refile the case, leaving Sprewell's reputation, career and freedom in limbo.

"He's no longer Roland Sprewell, public information officer. Now he's Roland Sprewell, the alleged arsonist," lamented a friend, Brent Burton, a county Fire Department captain.

The story began at 11:45 a.m. last July 26 with a phoned-in report to the Pasadena Fire Department of a fire at Raymond Avenue and Howard Street.

Responding fire crews quickly extinguished a second-floor blaze in a rambling Victorian house. There was no gas or power service in the vacant, unfurnished house, and the fire appeared to have started in the middle of a staircase.

It looked suspicious, but Ray Gordon, the Pasadena Fire Department battalion chief in charge at the scene, had a 1:30 p.m. meeting to attend in East L.A., so he handed control of the scene to Capt. Harry Crusberg and left.

An hour into his meeting, Gordon said, he got a call from Crusberg asking him to return to the scene. Roland Sprewell had shown up, not as a fireman, but as a citizen offering information about his eight-month-long attempt to buy the house.

The house, built in 1916, was owned by a nonprofit housing and neighborhood rehabilitation program, Pasadena Neighborhood Housing Services. The agency had bought the property in 1991, but had put it on the market.

The Sprewells had sold their home in the Inland Empire community of Alta Loma in 1999 and decided to buy in Pasadena, where Heidi had been raised and where Roland had worked for the Fire Department for seven years. He and Heidi, both African Americans, wanted their three children to live somewhere where their race was less likely to invite taunts at school.

The family moved in with relatives in Altadena, and Sprewell looked around Pasadena and Altadena for distressed properties, fixer-uppers; he'd been raised in an Irvine housing tract and wanted "something with character."

In late 2000, he found the five-bedroom, five-bathroom charmer in northwest Pasadena, the same district he'd worked as a Pasadena firefighter. The area had seen better days but looked to be making a comeback.

Sprewell took Heidi to show her the wood floors, the sweeping porch. They fell in love with the home and settled with the housing agency on a $340,000 sale price with $9,900 down.

But the Sprewells had trouble getting a loan big enough to cover the balance, according to court records. The escrow was extended, but the deal hit another snag--an undisclosed IRS tax lien against the property that blocked completion of the sale.

In June 2001, a frustrated Sprewell asked for a termination of the escrow and a return of his deposit. The housing agency agreed to cancel the escrow but refused to refund the deposit.

The house had stood vacant for nearly six months when the parties met in mid-July last year to try to resolve the problems. At that meeting, Sprewell proposed renting or leasing the property until the sale could be completed. Then he said something that prosecutors would later seize on as evidence of his guilt.

"I told them that, based on my experience as a firefighter in that area, vacant homes were a fire risk," he said.

The housing service's executive director declined Sprewell's offer to rent the property, and the parties agreed to meet again July 26. In the hours before that meeting, much of 1541 N. Raymond would be gutted by fire.

By all accounts, Sprewell showed up at the scene sometime after Gordon had left and started talking, disclosing facts that prosecutors would characterize as suspicious.

"He advised us that he was in escrow ... he was having some problems with the escrow and he was about to lose some [deposit] money," Crusberg testified at the preliminary hearing. His financial interest in the transaction meant "early on that Sprewell needed to be ruled out" as a suspect, Gordon said.

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