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Hotel Owner to Stand Trial in Deadly Fire

Courts: The North Hills resident faces charges of murder, arson and fraud. His stepfather, who was also accused in the blaze, is released after hearing.

July 24, 2002|JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER

The owner of a Hollywood hotel that was destroyed by a fire last year in which two people were killed was ordered Tuesday to stand trial on charges of murder, arson and insurance fraud.

His stepfather, also accused in the blaze, was set free at the end of the pair's preliminary hearing. Citing insufficient evidence, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Carlos Velarde ruled that 68-year-old Joseph Donald Lewellen of North Hills had no financial stake in the Palomar Hotel.

But the judge said there is probable cause that Juan Jose Ortiz, 45, of North Hills was responsible for the Aug. 16 fire.

Ortiz and Lewellen, were not in the hotel at 5473 Santa Monica Blvd. when it burned. Authorities believe that Ortiz's brother, Arturo Ortiz, who lived in and managed the hotel, set the fire. He died in the blaze.

Tenant Norma Galindo, 38, also died when she fell from a fourth-floor window just after passing her two small children to rescuers.

During the 20-day preliminary hearing, prosecutors presented evidence that Juan Ortiz stood to gain $900,000 in insurance claims. He took out a policy in February 2001.

Arson investigators testified that eight plastic gasoline containers were strategically placed in various unoccupied rooms. Arturo Ortiz was wearing two layers of clothing when his body was found. He had been caught off guard when the fire began prematurely, Deputy Dist. Atty. Jean Daly said.

Daly said Juan Ortiz and his brother planned the fire to rid themselves of the property, which faced $500,000 in repairs mandated by the city Building and Safety Department.

"This was a money pit," Daly said. "It was swallowing up money, and money had to be put in it."

Ortiz's attorney, Charles L. Lindner, said his client had no reason to torch the hotel, because it was profitable.

Lindner said Juan Ortiz was offered between $600,000 and $700,000 for the property, but didn't want to sell.

"The Palomar Hotel was a moneymaking engine that just needed a few repairs," Lindner said.

Ortiz is being held without bail pending his arraignment on Aug. 6.

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