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Ex-Marine held in N. Hollywood arson fires

Kurt K. Billie was convicted in 2001 of setting a series of fires outside a U.S. base in Okinawa, Japan.

August 03, 2011|By Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times
  • Vincent Bruno, 71, and his 96-year-old mother, Berndetta, walk by their blackened motor home in Sun Valley. Kurt K. Billie has been arrested on charges of setting a series of fires that caused at least $1 million in damage.
Vincent Bruno, 71, and his 96-year-old mother, Berndetta, walk by their… (Irfan KhanLos Angeles Times )

An ex-Marine arrested Tuesday on charges of setting nearly two dozen fires in North Hollywood served time for several highly publicized arson fires at several restaurants and bars just outside the U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan.

Kurt K. Billie, 34, was booked on suspicion of arson early Tuesday after he was seen setting fire to a small motor home about 4 a.m. in the 7500 block of Troost Avenue, authorities say. He was arrested by Los Angeles police a short distance away.

According to law enforcement sources familiar with the investigation, Billie is suspected of setting at least 19 fires in that area since mid-July, including a dozen fires over one three-day period. Most of the fires were ignited in vehicles parked in carports. But in some cases, the flames spread to nearby structures.

The string of fires unnerved residents in the San Fernando Valley community. The Los Angeles Fire Department issued a statement Sunday urging residents to take precautions and reduce the threat of arson by cleaning up dry vegetation, trash and debris on their properties, as well as locking vehicles and placing trash in covered bins.

One of the fires sent two people to the hospital for smoke inhalation.

A decade ago, the arson cases involving Billie generated much attention in Japan because of increasing friction between the U.S. military and Okinawa residents over a series of crimes involving American service members, including several cases of assault, child annoyance and vandalism.

The U.S. military initially resisted requests to turn over Billie to Japanese authorities but ultimately relented.

Billie, then 24, was found guilty in a Japanese court of burning seven restaurants and bars in Chatan in central Okinawa during two separate attacks in January 2001. The judge found Billie criminally responsible, noting that he "was drunk and made the attacks to escape from reality," according to an Associated Press account of the verdict.

It was not immediately clear how the Okinawa case would factor into the latest investigation. LAPD detectives and arson investigators have not commented on a motive in the case.

The rash of arson blazes led the LAPD to assign undercover officers to try to track down a suspect.

Days later, officers detained Billie after he was found in possession of a flammable liquid and a lighter. But because he was not caught in the act, prosecutors declined to immediately file charges in the case and the LAPD released Billie.

But early Tuesday, undercover officers crossed paths with Billie again. They followed him to a small motor home near his residence, and authorities say he set a fire there. Police and the Los Angeles City Fire Department's arson squad arrested him.

The motor home sustained major damage, fire officials said.

Fire officials said late Tuesday that the blazes caused at least $1 million in damage, but that total is expected to grow.

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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