TOPICS > Politics

LAPD Urges Ongoing Vigilance After Arrest in String of Arson Fires

January 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Another dozen fires erupted early Monday around Los Angeles, totaling more than 50 in at least four separate parts of the area over just four nights. Ray Suarez discusses the region's worst arson spree in two decades and the arrest of a suspect with Adam Nagourney, the Los Angeles bureau chief for The New York Times.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, an arrest of a suspect, as arson fires put Los Angeles on edge.

Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: The first car fire broke out just after midnight on Friday in the city of West Hollywood. Four more were reported in quick succession. By the end of the night, the total had reached at least 21 fires in Hollywood and West Hollywood, mostly in carports and underground garages.

Nobody was hurt, but flames damaged several homes and apartment buildings. The outbreak of apparent arson left firefighters scrambling and residents shaken.

WOMAN: That’s my home. I live there. Like, I could have died.

RAY SUAREZ: Early Saturday morning, another 16 suspected arson fires turned cars to charred metal. And New Year’s Eve brought still more.

WOMAN: And it was done while people were sleeping. And that’s the scary part.

RAY SUAREZ: Another dozen fires erupted early today. That made more than 50 in at least four separate parts of the Los Angeles area over the span of just four nights. It was the region’s worst arson spree in two decades.

But investigators caught a break with this surveillance video, showing a man with a pony tail. He was coming out of a parking garage on Hollywood Boulevard minutes before a fire began there Saturday evening. Early this morning, a man was detained based on that description.

JAIME MOORE, Los Angeles Fire Department: A Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, assigned to West Hollywood Station, stopped the driver of a van near Sunset Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue in the city of Los Angeles.

The van resembled a description provided by the arson task force as possibly being related to the recent fires. And the driver resembled a person of interest seen in a videotape released by the multi-agency arson task force the previous evening.

RAY SUAREZ: By this afternoon, he was formally arrested and faced arson charges. The police said damages so far have topped $2 million. The investigation was continuing.

For more on the fires that gripped Los Angeles over the weekend, we’re joined by Adam Nagourney, Los Angeles bureau chief of The New York Times.

Adam, in the past few hours, have we learned any more about this man first picked up as a person of interest?

ADAM NAGOURNEY, The New York Times: He’s been arrested. He’s been charged with arson. They have not officially put out his name yet. They’re holding a news conference at 6:15 Pacific time to put out more details about him.

I think some of the big questions out there is whether or not he acted alone, whether or not he was able to do this on his own. The police were not specific about that. They suggested they thought so, but at that news conference earlier that you referenced in your report, they said they were continuing the investigation and still talking to people.

So, that is one of the big questions out there.

RAY SUAREZ: With a crime that allows the perpetrator to get away before police and fire arrive on the scene, maybe even far away, did police catch a couple of breaks? Did they get lucky? An arrest came pretty quickly.

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Well, two things.

I agree. The videotape was certainly a break for them. There are so many surveillance cameras in the world these days that I can’t — I’m not sure I would call it lucky. I’m not sure it’s surprising. The police also really flooded the area. There were cops all over the place.

And it’s basically — you know, you talk about how it was in four separate areas. That’s totally true, but it was concentrated particularly in Hollywood and West Hollywood. And that’s a fairly discreet area. So, I thought that inevitably that he would get caught. I thought maybe it would be three days, maybe four, but I thought inevitably he would get caught, because there’s just — there’s only so many — it’s easy to catch — to see someone do something. There are so many police out there.

And the LAPD has, after years of not having a good reputation, has a really good reputation now for breaking crimes, cracking crimes.

RAY SUAREZ: L.A. County is a geographically vast population, huge, dazzlingly diverse place. It’s hard to name a story that gets everybody’s attention. Was this an exception?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: I think this was an exception. It’s like this, earthquakes and Carmageddon.

But, you know, the thing is like — as one of your — the people you spoke to was saying, there’s something about it that was very alarming. And it was not only the fact that when you went to sleep at night, you always have to wonder what was that sound up the street? What’s that light change?

But also like certainly in the area where this was going on, which happens to be where I live, there would be sirens all night. There would be helicopters flying over all night. Two nights ago, I heard a helicopter coming right nearby, so I walked out our front door. There was a car on fire. And so it was very much in people’s faces.

It’s not like if you were in New York, New York City, and this was taking place in Queens. It was really all over the place. And I think that people were very aware of it and people were very much on edge. So, no, this definitely had people talking and concerned.

RAY SUAREZ: During this short spell of nightly fires, police had advice. They asked people to be on the lookout. Are they asking that people still keep their guard up, that the possibility still exists for more fires?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: At the earlier news conference today, that is one thing they said which definitely caught my attention, which is why I was wondering whether they consider the case closed or not. They’re telling people to keep their lights on at night and watch out for suspicious characters.

We’ll see if they say that again, because I — my guess is that most people will continue to do this for a while. One thing I think they have to look out for — and the police didn’t mention this, but — is copycat. Right? Even if this guy did act alone, what if there are copycat people out there who try to do the same thing? That is a common sort of phenomena in these kind of arson fires.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I guess one way to check, have there been any similar fires since this so far unnamed suspect was first picked up?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: No. This guy was picked up at 3:00 a.m. California time this morning. There’s not been a fire since then. Over the past couple nights, they have gone as late as — don’t hold me to it, but I think 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. So, so far, so good.

RAY SUAREZ: The ATF, a federal agency, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, was one of the agencies in on this investigation. Why is that? How does the federal government get involved in a series of local crimes?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Part of this, I think, is this is an arson investigation. And that’s the kind of investigation they would get involved in.

Also, keep in mind that L.A. is, in addition to being very diverse, really complicated geographically. And we’re talking already two different police agencies, the L.A. County Sheriff’s and the Los Angeles Police Department, because it covers such a vast area — such a vast area of — and so many different communities and so many towns.

And one thing they did was set up a task force of all these different agencies to kind of coordinate it. So, I think it was just a way of sort of keeping things together and having more expertise brought in.

RAY SUAREZ: Do we know anything yet about the M.O., or any good theories about how such a large number of fires were set? Do we know how the arsonist was setting these garages on fire?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: We don’t know that yet. There’s been a lot of rumors out there about whether or not he used Molotov cocktails, whether or not he used timing devices.

The fact that there was a space in time on that videotape between when he left the garage on Highland and — I believe it was on Highland and Hollywood — and when it went up in flames makes people think that there must have been a timing device in play.

The only thing that makes people think — and, again, at this point, we’re just speculating this based on fact — think there must be a timing device in play is these things happened in such sort of concentration. Like, on the first night, on Friday morning, early Friday morning, it would be like attack, two minutes later, another attack. And you could hear it, because you’d hear a set of sirens. And then a few seconds later, you would hear another set of sirens further away in the city.

And the police and the fire department spent their whole night chasing around fires from place to place. And either there’s two people doing it or he was able to do it with a timer. In any event, he was able to overwhelm the fire department and the police department for a while.

RAY SUAREZ: And so you’ll be hearing from the authorities involved in a little while in California time?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Yeah, they’re holding a news conference.

They were going to book him. As we’re speaking now, they were going to officially book him. And once he’s officially booked, his name is released. But they want to hold the news conference with all the political leaders — I’m not saying that they’re doing it because they want to take some credit in this, but just in case they are — at about 6:15.

The mayor will be fire. The fire department chief will be there. The police chief will be there. We’ll presumably get even more details at that point. But, again, I think the main question here that people are wondering here about, assuming obviously he’s guilty, did he act alone? Did this put an end to this?

It’s hard to exaggerate. This is obviously a city that is — an area that is used to various kind of external threats, whether it’s mudslides or earthquakes. But it’s hard to, you know, exaggerate the extent to which this sort of put people on edge. There was something very anonymous about it and very disconcerting about it because it was random, because it happened at night, because — no one got hurt here, but that was just a matter of luck, because he blew up cars.

But a lot of these cars set buildings on fire. And I know people who normally keep their car in their driveway who parked on it on the street just because they didn’t want to have a situation of like having their car blow up and then having their house set on fire. So, people were very nervous about this.

RAY SUAREZ: Adam Nagourney of The New York Times, thanks for joining us.

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Thanks for having me.