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Station fire probe yields little evidence, no suspects

The chief investigator in the fatal blaze says there is not enough evidence to arrest anyone. 'Basically we have nothing at this point,' he says. 'We have run down all our leads.'

November 21, 2009|By Richard Winton
  • The Station fire, which broke out Aug. 26, swept through slopes and canyons in the San Gabriel Mountains, killing two firefighters and scorching 160,577 acres.
The Station fire, which broke out Aug. 26, swept through slopes and canyons… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Nearly three months after the Station fire blazed through the foothills and canyons above Los Angeles, killing two firefighters and scorching 160,577 acres, investigators say they don't have the necessary evidence to arrest anyone for setting the fatal fire.

Los Angeles County sheriff's homicide detectives have questioned a man who already has been charged with setting a smaller blaze in the Angeles National Forest days before the Station fire broke out. But authorities say they have been unable to connect Babatunsin Olukunle, 25, to the fire.

"He has told us nothing of relevance in connection with the Station fire," said sheriff's Lt. Liam Gallagher, who is leading the homicide probe. "We've talked to him and we'd like to talk to him again."

He said Olukunle was charged last month with setting the Lady Bug fire and was sent to Patton State Hospital, a facility for the mentally ill in San Bernardino County, for evaluation. A one-time UC Davis student who became a transient, he was "articulate" during an interview but of little help, Gallagher said.

Olukunle has pleaded not guilty to setting the Lady Bug fire and detectives are no longer calling him a person of interest in the Station fire investigation. "We don't label people," Gallagher said.

Sources familiar with the probe said a substance was used to ignite the Station fire, which began Aug. 26 in a turnout above La CaƱada Flintridge. "Basically we have nothing at this point," Gallagher said. "We have run down all our leads." The fire investigation became a double homicide case Aug. 30 when L.A. County Fire Capt. Tedmund "Ted" Hall, 47, and Firefighter Specialist "Arnaldo "Arnie" Quinones, 35, died when their vehicle careened off a road south of Acton, plunging some 800 feet into a ravine.

Nationally, only about 10% of arson fires end in criminal charges being filed. Arson wildfires are among the most difficult cases to prove, especially when there is a lack of eyewitnesses in an area and the point of origin has been repeatedly burned over, Gallagher said.

The slow progress in solving such fires is not unusual.

Almost six years after the Old fire destroyed 1,000 homes in San Bernardino County and led to six deaths, prosecutors last month charged prison inmate Rickie Lee Fowler with arson and murder in the fire. He was first identified by a tipster as a potential suspect in the 140-square-mile fire and interviewed in February 2004.

The 1993 Malibu fire, which killed three people and caused $375 million in damage, and the 1994 Laguna Beach fire, which destroyed 441 homes and caused $528 million in damage, were labeled arsons but remain unsolved. Arson experts say when a case is cracked, it often is because other fires are connected to the same individual.

That was the case for Raymond Lee Oyler, who was sentenced to death this year in the deaths of five firefighters in the 2006 Esperanza fire. Shortly after it, he was arrested for two earlier Banning-area blazes.

richard.winton@latimes.com

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