From the Files of the Arson Squad…
On August 11, 2010, at 1915 hours, the LAFD received a report of a structure fire at Washington Boulevard and Trinity Street. Task Force 10, Engine 15, Task Force 14, RA 10, RA 810, Task Force 14, RA 814, Squad 4, EMS 1 and Battalion 1 were dispatched to the incident. The first arriving companies encountered fire and heavy smoke emitting from a garage-type storage room located between a church and a two-story single-family dwelling.
The fire was exposing the attached structures and had already spread to the eaves of both the church and the dwelling. Additional resources were immediately requested, resulting in dispatch of Truck 9, Engine 17, Engine 17, Light Force 20, TF 27, RA 27, RA 827, Emergency Air 1, Battalion 3, Battalion 5, Division 1, and A-Unit 1.
The Greater Alarm assignment of approximately 80 firefighters took just 41 minutes to knock-down the fire, which resulted in an estimated $1,000,000 in damage to the 100 year-old church and attached structures. Although the damage estimate was significant, the majority of the church and dwelling structures were undamaged due to the quick work of the firefighters. Additionally, there were no fatalities or injuries reported, even though the church and dwelling were both occupied at the time of the fire.
Due to the fact that the fire involved a house of worship, A-Unit 1 requested the response of the on-call arson team, which includes an arson investigator and supervisor assigned to the Special Investigations (Day) Unit. Additional notifications were made to the Los Angeles House of Worship Arson Task Force agencies, which includes LAFD arson investigators, LAPD Criminal Conspiracy Section (CCS) detectives, an ATF agent and an FBI agent.
As investigators from each of the Task Force agencies arrived, they were assigned to either the fire origin and cause team or the investigative team. The fire origin and cause team consisted of an ATF agent, one investigator assigned to A-Unit 1, the LAFD Arson K-9 handler with the accelerant detection K-9, the Arson Section forensic photographer and an Arson Section Captain. The investigative team, which was assigned to identify and interview witnesses, was comprised of an arson investigator assigned to the LAFD Arson Special Investigations Unit, an investigator assigned to A-Unit 1, the Arson Section commander, two LAPD detectives and their Lieutenant, and an FBI agent.
The origin and cause team conducted a thorough systematic search of the scene and determined that the fire had originated just inside the double “barn-style” shed doors, where they found that a large amount of clothing had been stored. They determined that the fire was intentionally set and ruled the cause incendiary.
The investigative team interviewed two female witnesses who gave similar accounts of a man (suspect) that had attempted to open the storage shed doors less than five minutes prior the discovery of a fire just inside those doors. The first witness, who was identified as the minister’s wife, said she arrived at the church and saw the suspect attempting to remove something from between the shed doors. She said the suspect turned and looked in her direction, and then approached and yelled at her as she entered the church.
The second witness was a resident of the fire damaged dwelling. She had seen the suspect through her window as he confronted the first witness, then returned to the storage shed doors momentarily before quickly walking away while looking back over his shoulder toward the shed doors.
Based on the witness descriptions, LAPD made a radio crime broadcast and provided the arson suspect’s description. Police patrol officers searched the area, but were unable to locate the suspect.
The following morning, a few of the Task Force members returned to the church to conduct additional investigation. There were several church representatives and the dwelling occupant (second witness) at the location engaged in salvage activities and damage assessment. The investigators were outside with the church staff when the forensic photographer observed a man standing on the sidewalk a short distance away. The man, who closely matched the physical description given for the suspect the previous night, was watching the activities and carrying items that appeared to have been removed from the church.
The photographer alerted the arson investigator, who then approached the individual and asked to speak with him. The man provided his name, Ricardo Aguilar Martinez, and advised that he was not assisting with the clean up, but said he often came to the church to obtain free clothing and resources. Martinez then admitted that he had been at the church the previous day about 15 to 30 minutes before he became aware of the fire, which he claimed to first see from the area of 23rd Street and San Pedro.
At this same time, the forensic photographer went across the street and asked the witness whether she thought the man might be the same individual she’d seen outside her window just prior to the fire. The witness said she thought Martinez looked a lot like him, but couldn’t be sure.
The arson investigator then contacted the LAPD CCS detectives that had assisted with the investigation the previous night, and requested that they bring the minister’s wife to the church for a field show-up and possible suspect identification. The detectives arrived a short time later and conducted a field show-up, at which time the witness stated she was 75 to 80% sure that Martinez was the same individual she had seen the previous night.
The arson investigator transported Martinez to the LAPD Newton police station, where he and a CCS detective obtained a Miranda waiver and conducted a formal interview. Martinez made conflicting statements and initially denied any involvement, but then admitted to being the individual the two witnesses had described. He denied intentionally starting the fire, but said that he might have accidentally started it and not realized that he’d done so. He also said that if he had started it intentionally he would have done so at night when no one could see him.
After concluding the interview, investigators, believing that probable cause existed that Martinez was responsible for intentionally starting the fire, placed him under arrest and booked him for 451(b) P.C., Arson of an Inhabited Structure. Arson investigators presented the case to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office – Arson Unit, and obtained a felony complaint filing for one count of 451(b) P.C., Arson of an Inhabited Structure, and one count of 451(c) P.C., Arson of a Structure.
A preliminary hearing was held in September of 2010 at the Criminal Courts Building in Downtown Los Angeles. The ATF agent provided expert testimony to support his fire origin and cause determination, and the witnesses testified regarding their observations. Martinez was held-to-answer and bound over for trial, but on March 17, 2011, prior to trial, he pleaded no-contest to a single arson charge and received a State Prison Sentence of three years.
Note: The Los Angeles House of Worship Arson Task Force was formed in the mid-1990’s in response to several church fires that had occurred in other regions of the country. Battalion Chief Terry Manning, the Arson Section commander at that time, took a proactive approach and organized the Los Angeles Task Force. The successful outcome of this investigation is one of several examples of the team work and value of this nearly 20-year-old partnership.