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Homeless man wanted for questioning in Station fire

The 25-year-old Nigerian national was reportedly seen tending a small blaze about six days before the Station fire started in the same area.

October 13, 2009|Ari B. Bloomekatz and Andrew Blankstein

Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives hope to question a man who was spotted tending a small fire in the vicinity of the Station fire almost one week before that deadly blaze erupted in the Angeles National Forest.

At a news conference Monday, homicide detectives requested the public's help in locating a 25-year-old homeless man who was caught "feeding" a small, uncontrolled fire in the early afternoon of Aug. 20 -- six days before the start of the devastating Station fire.

The man, Babatunsin Olukunle, a Nigerian national, was reportedly caught tending the small fire near mile marker 36 of the Angeles Crest Highway. The two U.S. Forest Service employees who spotted him ordered Olukunle to stay put while they extinguished the fire.

But Olukunle slipped into the woods, and now investigators hope to question him, according to Sheriff's Det. Todd Anderson.

Authorities say they have no evidence linking Olukunle to the Station fire. However, authorities said, investigators would be "negligent" if they did not talk to him because the site of the Lady Bug fire -- the name they're calling the blaze that Olukunle was reportedly seen tending -- was about six miles from the Station fire's ignition point.

The Station fire started Aug. 26 near a ranger station north of La Canada Flintridge and became the largest brush fire in L.A. County history. Investigators say the blaze was probably the work of an arsonist and that the culprit should be held to blame for the deaths of two firefighters during the blaze. The county and the state have offered a $150,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in the matter.

Investigators believe a substance found near the fire's point of origin helped spread the blaze. It has emerged as a key piece of evidence in the arson probe, said a source who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss the investigation. The source declined to identify the substance.

Investigators stressed that Olukunle is wanted only for questioning. Sheriff's Lt. Liam Gallagher said detectives want to "see what he knows" about the Station fire.

Olukunle's family has told investigators that he came home from UC Davis for summer break in 2007, began acting strangely and disappeared in July.

"They've been looking for him for two years," Gallagher said.

Gallagher said Olukunle was arrested in November 2007 in Redondo Beach for "illegal camping" and that in April of this year he was placed on a 72-hour mental-observation hold by authorities in Crescenta Valley.

Olukunle had been seen pushing a makeshift cart on Angeles Crest Highway and carrying bags of recyclables, Gallagher said. Occasionally he was seen on a blue bicycle.

He was seen in the Lancaster area until a week and a half ago, Gallagher said.


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