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Arson suspect sues after 2 years in jail, acquittal in 2 trials

Riverside fire officials had linked him to 40 fires through a device co-invented by a Newport Beach man.

October 25, 2008|H.G. Reza | Reza is a Times staff writer.

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, 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 days and weeks 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 last year.

Espalin, 34, 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, a machine that 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.

Dog handler Lisa Harvey, also a biology instructor at Victor Valley College in Victorville, claimed that Dakota followed the scent pad made from an incendiary device to Espalin's house.

Riverside Fire Capt. Robert Rappaport testified that he connected Espalin to the fires through human scent trails.

Harvey declined to comment on the suit. Riverside Fire Department officials did not return calls for comment.

According to the lawsuit, there was no physical evidence or eyewitness linking Espalin to any of the fires. Espalin's attorney, Joseph L. DeClue, said investigators had evidence that another man was setting the fires but withheld it from the defense.

Unable to post $500,000 bail, Espalin spent two years in county jail awaiting trial.

Newport Beach engineer Larry Harris is a co-inventor of the scent transfer unit and trained Harvey. The machine and the dogs used with it have led to false arrests in several high-profile cases.

An Irvine man was convicted of murder but the conviction was thrown out by a judge who said the machine was scientifically unreliable. A Long Beach man arrested as a serial rapist was cleared by DNA tests. And a Buena Park man sent to prison for a carjacking was freed when DNA from the crime scene was matched to a man already in custody for another carjacking.

More than $2.3 million has been paid out in lawsuits stemming from some of the cases.

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hgreza@latimes.com

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