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CALIFORNIA BRIEFING / SANTA ANA

Arson suspect sues over arrest

October 25, 2008|H.G. Reza

A Riverside man who was jailed for two years as a suspect in 40 arson fires has sued Riverside Fire Department officials and a dog handler who linked him to the crimes by using a controversial device intended to pick up human scent at crime scenes.

Michael Espalin, 34, who was acquitted after two trials, is asking for unspecified damages in the federal lawsuit filed in Santa Ana. The only evidence against him was a bloodhound named Dakota whose handler said the dog found Espalin's scent at the fires after they were set in 2004.

Though arson investigators suspected him of lighting 40 fires, mostly trees and bushes in Riverside, Espalin was tried on only 21 counts at his first trial, which ended with the jury deadlocked 9 to 3 for acquittal. He faced a single count at a second trial and was acquitted.

Espalin is at least the sixth person in Southern California cleared since 1996 after being linked to a crime by the so-called scent transfer unit STU-100, which supposedly transfers human scent from an object at a crime scene to a 5-by-9-inch gauze pad. The pad is put to a bloodhound's nose, and the dog theoretically follows the scent to the suspect.

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