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Owner acquitted of murder in Palomar Hotel fire

March 24, 2007|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

The owner of a Hollywood hotel that burned in a deadly arson fire six years ago was acquitted of murder charges Friday.

Juan Ortiz, 50, wiped tears from his eyes as a court clerk read the not guilty verdicts of a downtown Los Angeles jury. Ortiz's six-month trial was the fourth attempt by Los Angeles County prosecutors to convict Ortiz of murder, conspiracy, arson and insurance fraud charges stemming from the fire Aug. 16, 2001, at the Palomar Hotel, in which two people died.

Ortiz's lawyer, Charles L. Lindner, kissed his client on the top of his head as the clerk read through the not guilty verdicts on 12 counts, while Lindner's son Abe, a paralegal on the case, hugged Ortiz.

Linder called the verdict "the correct outcome in a case that has been a six-year persecution of my client."

Outside the courtroom, Ortiz said he was "very happy" with the verdict, but said: "I suffered a lot. I was in jail for five years, and I was beaten" by other inmates.

A judge in 2003 dismissed the case against Ortiz for lack of evidence. He was arrested and charged again for the crimes, but a jury in 2005 did not reach a verdict on the most serious charges, prompting prosecutors to retry the case. A second trial in 2006 also ended with a hung jury on the most serious charges. Ortiz was found guilty in the first two trials of insurance fraud charges. He is to be sentenced for those crimes May 8.

Prosecutors contended that the building had become a "nightmare" of expenses and safety violations for Ortiz and that he had it destroyed for insurance money.

Ortiz's brother Arturo -- a hotel night manager whose body was found hunched over a gasoline can on the second floor of the four-story hotel -- set the fire while emptying 20 gallons of gasoline in the building. He had been spreading a total of 40 gallons of gas when a pilot light set the fuel ablaze before he finished.

A 38-year-old woman fell from a window to her death after passing her two children to firefighters standing on ladders.

Juan Ortiz was not at the hotel, at 5473 Santa Monica Blvd., when the blaze started. But prosecutors cited his fingerprints on a paint can used to start the blaze as evidence of his participation, and they said he purchased some items used in the fire with his credit card.

Juror Rosa Rosenberg, 60, a Los Angeles city employee, said she interpreted that evidence as a sign Ortiz was not guilty. "He would not buy things with his credit card or leave his fingerprints everywhere. If someone was going to commit a felony, it doesn't strike me he would do things like that," she said.

Lindner said Ortiz was raised in a house with a dirt floor in Mexico along with nine siblings. His brother Arturo, who had been a physician in Mexico, was in despair over his menial life in Los Angeles and resented the relative success of Juan, who had only a sixth-grade education, Lindner said. Lindner argued in court that Arturo set the fire in an act of rage and frustration.

District attorney spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said "we always knew this would be a very, very difficult case. The person who set the fire was killed."

But citing the mother who died in the blaze and others who were severely injured, Gibbons said the case "had to be tried."

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