Detectives still far from arrest in Station fire arson
Nearly three months after the Station wildfire turned into the biggest blaze in L.A. County history, killing two firefighters, investigators say they don’t have the necessary evidence to arrest anyone for the arson.
Sheriff’s homicide detectives have questioned a man charged with setting a smaller blaze less than a week before in Angeles National Forest. But authorities say they have not been able to connect Babatunsin Olukunle, a 25-year-old Nigerian national, to the 160,577-acre Station fire that began Aug. 26 in a turnout near Mile Marker 29 above La Cañada Flintridge, authorities say.
“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.”
Nationally, only about 10% of arson fires yield charges .The task is made all the more difficult in arson wildfires because unlike structural fires there is no confined space.
Arson wildfires are among the most difficult homicide cases to prove, especially when there is a lack of eyewitnesses in an area and point of origin has been repeatedly burned over during by the fire, Gallagher said.
Gallagher said Olukunle was charged last month with setting the Lady Bug Fire and was sent to Patton General Hospital, a state mental health facility, for an evaluation. Olukunle, a one-time UC Davis student who became a transient, was “articulate” during an interview but of little help, Gallagher said.
Olukunle has pleaded not guilty to setting the earlier fire in a forest. Detectives won’t even call him a person of interest anymore in the Station fire.
“We don’t label people,” Gallagher said.
Investigators know that a substance helped ignite the fire, according to sources familiar with the investigation. They have repeatedly combed the grid around the fire’s point of origin looking for markings or other clues to the human cause of the blaze.
“Basically we have nothing at this point. We have run down all our leads,” Gallagher said.
The fire became a double homicide Aug. 30 when 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.
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 lead to six deaths, prosecutors last month charged prison inmate Rickie Lee Fowler with arson and murder. Fowler was first identified by a tipster as a potential suspect in the 140-square mile fire and interviewed in February 2004. The blaze was ignited by a road flare thrown from a vehicle. Investigators in Southern California have had a hard time identifying many such arsonists.
The 1993 Malibu fire, which killed three and caused $375 million in damage, and the 1994 Laguna Beach fire, which destroyed 441 homes and left $528 million in damage, are unsolved. Arson experts say when a case is cracked it is often because of other fires are connected to the same individual.
That was the case for Raymond Lee Oyler sentenced to death in the killing of five firefighters in the 2006 Esperanza fire. Shortly after that fire, Oyler was arrested by Riverside County authorities for two earlier blazes in the Banning area. Prosecutors later connected him to similar devices involved in a series of fires. In the Station fire probe, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday renewed a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the fire starter.
-- Richard Winton
Photo: Tiffany Brain searches for anything of value of what's left after the Station fire destroyed her uncle's home in Big Tujunga Canyon. Credit: Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times
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