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Hotel Owner Re-Arrested in Fatal Fire

October 25, 2003|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

Hours after a judge dismissed murder and insurance-fraud charges against him, the owner of a Hollywood hotel destroyed by a fire that left two people dead was re-arrested Friday on suspicion of helping his brother torch the structure.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Norman P. Tarle granted Juan Jose Ortiz's motion to dismiss the charges before trial, finding that insufficient evidence had been presented at the preliminary hearing last year to try Ortiz on charges of murder, arson and insurance fraud. The 46-year-old San Fernando resident had faced life in prison without parole.

Authorities have said Ortiz's brother, Arturo, who managed the hotel, set the blaze that killed him and a woman who fell to her death after passing her two children to firefighters on a ladder outside the fourth-floor window of the Palomar Hotel. But authorities also said Ortiz had a financial motive for allegedly assisting his brother in destroying the building. Ortiz's lawyer rejects the prosecution's theories.

"We don't know why Arturo burned down the building but Juan had absolutely nothing to do with it -- except that he was related to the man who did it and the brothers didn't even get along," attorney Charles L. Lindner said.

Prosecutors are now considering their next step. "We feel that the judge was absolutely wrong and we're exploring our options," said Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the L.A. County district attorney's office.

Neither Ortiz nor his stepfather, Joseph Donald Lewellen, 69, of San Fernando was at the hotel at 5473 Santa Monica Blvd. when the Aug. 16, 2001, fire began. Both men were charged with aiding and abetting Arturo Ortiz. Last year, another judge threw out similar charges against Lewellen, finding he lacked a motive because he had no financial stake in the hotel.

Prosecutors have argued that Ortiz wanted the hotel destroyed to get rid of the "money pit" it had become after a judge ordered massive improvements and to collect a $900,000 insurance policy. They link Ortiz to the crime scene with a fingerprint on the lid of one of the paint cans used to start the blaze.

But Lindner said his client had already spent $150,000 to make court-ordered improvements inside the dilapidated building and had even secured a loan to rebuild after the fire. He said Ortiz had turned down offers as high as $700,000 to sell the property before the blaze.

The fingerprint does not link Ortiz to the crime because he regularly did maintenance work, including painting, around the building, Lindner said.

Ortiz is again being held in county jail without bail.

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