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Who Struck the Match? With Tips Gone, Arsonist Remains a Mystery

October 26, 2003|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

At least one person knows who started the Laguna Beach fire in 1993: The arsonist who was never caught.

While no one was arrested in the most destructive wildfire in Orange County history, it wasn't for lack of effort. Fourteen full-time arson investigators from local, state and federal agencies followed up on hundreds of tips that poured in for years.

"We checked each and every one of them. Some of them we checked twice, some three times," said Capt. Ed Hardy, who headed the investigation for the Orange County Fire Authority. "Now I can't remember how many years it has been since we had a tip."

The case is officially closed. The statute of limitations on the crime ran out after three years. Today, the case files are stored in four 4-foot-long legal boxes that haven't been opened in years, Hardy said.

"It's very frustrating," he said. "We don't do this for the money, I can tell you that. A lot of people lost a lot of personal property in that fire, stuff that was lost forever."

The Oct. 27, 1993, blaze that burned nearly 26 square miles began in brush off Laguna Canyon Road, on an incline between the highway and a fence.

Investigators concluded arson was the cause through a process of elimination.

There were no overhead power lines, no evidence that a hot-running vehicle had pulled up onto the grass, no way that a cigarette flicked from a car could have traveled that far given how strong the wind was blowing toward the road that day.

With no physical evidence, Hardy said the only hope was finding an eyewitness. Anyone claiming to have seen something was taken seriously, even if the story seemed a bit loopy.

Two promising leads went nowhere. For weeks, authorities searched unsuccessfully for a black Pontiac Fiero seen near an Anaheim arson fire the previous day.

A year later, an arson suspect in Fullerton confessed to stating the Laguna fire--the damage it caused and the lives it upended--is never far from Hardy's mind.

"I always think about it when the winds start blowing this time of year," he said.

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