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Former Marine charged with setting arson fires

Photo: Investigators believe as many as 18 vehicle fires, including those set in North Hollywood Sunday morning, may be connected. Credit: KTLA-TV Prosecutors charged a former Marine who previously served jail time for setting fires on Okinawa, Japan, with nearly two dozen felony counts Thursday in connection with two dozen arson fires in North Hollywood in recent weeks that authorities said caused more than $1-million damage.

Kurt K. Billie, 34, was charged by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office with 20 counts of felony arson and one count of felony aggravated arson. If convicted on all counts, he faces a maximum term of life in state prison.

Billie was booked on suspicion of arson after undercover officers saw him setting fire to a small motor home about 4 a.m. Tuesday in the 7500 block of Troost Avenue. 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. One of the fires sent two people to the hospital for smoke inhalation.

A decade ago, Billie made international news when he was arrested for burning seven restaurants and bars in Chatan in central Okinawa during two separate arsons. The judge found Billie criminally responsible for January 2001 attacks, noting that he "was drunk and made the attacks to escape from reality," according to an Associated Press account of the verdict.

The case came against a backdrop 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.

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.
Billie was detained 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.

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-- Andrew Blankstein

Twitter.com/anblanx.

Photo: Torched cars sit in a carport in North Hollywood. Prosecutors charged a former Marine with nearly two dozen felony counts Thursday in connection with arson fires in North Hollywood in recent weeks. Credit: KTLA-TV

 
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L.A. Now is the Los Angeles Times’ breaking news section for Southern California. It is produced by more than 80 reporters and editors in The Times’ Metro section, reporting from the paper’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters as well as bureaus in Costa Mesa, Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Riverside, Ventura and West Los Angeles.
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