Suspect identified in Pasadena auto body shop arson

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PASADENA >> DNA evidence links a suspect to the arson of a Pasadena auto body shop last month that caused $375,000 worth of damage, officials announced Thursday.
Jesse Cole Nicholas, 30, was already in jail on unrelated cases when he was linked by DNA Wednesday to the Sept. 27 fire, according to Pasadena fire officials and arrest records.
The 7:20 a.m. blaze badly damaged a rear building used for detailing and prep work at Alliance Auto Body, 826 S. Arroyo Parkway, and destroyed two cars that were parked inside, Pasadena Fire Department spokeswoman Lisa Derderian said.
“Believing that the fire was suspicious in nature, a fire investigator was summoned to the scene,” Pasadena fire officials said in a statement. “The investigator was able to determine that the fire was an intentional act and initiated an arson investigation.”
Surveillance footage from the business shows a man hopping a fence and breaking into cars at Alliance Auto Body hours before the fire ignited, officials said. He then stole a car and fled.
But the burglar returned several hours later, broke into several more vehicles and set fire to a car parked in the rear building, authorities said.
1017_NWS_PSN-L-ARSONSUSPECT2Pasadena fire investigators teamed with Pasadena police detectives and distributed a suspect flyer seeking information. “As a result of viewing the video, (the fire investigator) believed the suspect may possibly be transient and began canvasing the areas of the city frequented by the homeless.”
The fire investigator found a man matching the description at Pasadena’s Central Park on Sept. 29, according to the statement. Police helped arrest the suspect on an outstanding felony warrant as the investigation into the arson continued.
Nicholas received a 60-day jail sentence for the unrelated warrant on Oct. 1 at Los Angeles Superior Court, according to Los Angeles County records. He remained in custody Thursday at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic.
Records show he was also sentenced to 10 days for violating the terms of Post-Release Community Supervision stemming from a prior conviction.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Crime Lab notified Pasadena investigators Tuesday that DNA collected from one of the burglarized vehicles matched Nicholas, officials said.
A fire investigator interviewed Nicholas in jail Wednesday.
“Although the suspect denied knowledge and involvement in the break-in, auto theft and arson, he did provide the approximate location of the stolen vehicle, which was recovered,” according to the department statement.
Investigators planned to file their case with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office next week.

PHOTOS courtesy of the Pasadena Fire Department

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South Pasadena serial arsonist sentenced

A man began serving a six-year prison sentenced this week after he was convicted of 12 counts of arson for torching cars and brush near his South Pasadena home.
The five-month arson spree of Javier Adolfo Viera, 36, began in November of 2012 and ended with his arrest in April of 2013, Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Frances Young of the DA’s Arson-Explosives Section said.
An Alhambra Superior Court jury convicted him Tuesday of one count of arson and was continuing to deliberate on the other 11 counts when Viera announced he would plead “no contest” to the remaining charges, Young said.
He was immediately sentenced to six years in state prison and ordered to register on a state database of arsonists.
The arson fires targeted six cars and six spots of brush in the general vicinity of the Arroyo Seco, Young said. He began lighting brush fires before graduating to vehicles.
Viera told investigators he lit the fires out of jealousy and frustration.
“He was not happy with the way his life turned out. He begrudged people their good fortunes,” the prosecutor said.
The cars scorched by the arsonist included a Mercedes-Benz, an Audi, a new Volkswagen, a Honda Hybrid, a Toyota Prius and a 1972 International Harvester Scout, Young said.
“They were all really nice cars,” she added.
The fires appeared to be growing increasingly more dangerous, with one lit only inches away from a 10-unit apartment building. The cars were torched while parked in residential neighborhoods.
Following his arrest after his final car fire in Los Angeles, Viera confessed to other arsons, South Pasadena police Sgt. Robert Bartl said at the time. He told police he never meant to hurt anyone and needed help.
The brush fires all remained small, largely due to vigilant neighbors who spotted and doused the fires with water bottles and garden hoses while they remained small, Young said.
The brush fires were lit with toilet paper and cotton balls, Bartl said.
When he switched to lighting car fires, he began using trash bags full of pine needles with he left beneath the cars’ gas tanks and set afire, police said.
Viera was initially charged with 18 counts of arson, though six of the counts were dismissed prior to trial, Young said.
Additionally, investigators were looking into him in connection with at least eight additional fires in South Pasadena, Pasadena and Los Angeles, though no charges have been filed in those cases.
Viera was ordered back to court for a restitution hearing Aug. 22, Young said. He was disputing the $109,000 in alleged damages the prosecutor said he owed the victim for the damage he caused.

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Arson suspected in Azusa car fire; may be linked to argument over illegal fireworks

AZUSA — Investigators suspect arson after a car was torched in a senior citizen’s driveway about 45 minutes after she told a group of people to stop lighting illegal fireworks near her home in an unincorporated county area near Azusa, authorities said.
Officials stopped short of calling the woman and two men who argued with the 66-year-old woman suspects in the apparent arson, however detectives were investigating their possible involvement and wanted to speak with them, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Lt. Andy Berg said.
“We find it an interesting coincidence,” the lieutenant said.
Deputies responded to reports of a car in flames just after 1 a.m. at the woman’s home in the 18600 block of Mauna Loa Avenue, sheriff’s officials said.
By the time firefighters extinguished the burning vehicle, a 1999 Chevrolet Camaro belonging to the woman’s son, it had been completely destroyed, Berg said. The car was valued at about $3,000.
A 1997 Saturn parked nearby was also damaged by the flames, officials said. The car sustained about $2,000 worth of heat damage to its hood and driver side.
Detectives from the Sheriff’s Arson-Explosives Detail were looking into exactly how the fire ignited.
“Based on the fact the Camaro had not been driven for 2 days, and because of evidence at the scene, fire department officials suspect that the fire was intentionally started,” sheriff’s officials said in a written statement.
About 45 minutes prior to the fire, the woman had confronted a woman and two men lighting illegal “mortar”-style fireworks near her home.
“She asked them not to light any more fireworks, and told the group she would be calling the police,” according to the sheriff’s department statement. “A woman in the group engaged in a brief argument with the resident.”
The resident did not recognize the woman or the men she was with, Berg said. The woman was described as white or Latina, about 40 years old, 5 feet 10 inches tall and about 150 pounds. A description of the men was not available.
Dispatch records show the resident did not call deputies to report the fireworks or the argument, officials said.
But another resident about a block and a half away had called the sheriff’s department to report illegal fireworks at 12:53 a.m., after the argument but before the fire ignited.
Deputies arrived four minutes later, but did not locate any suspicious persons or illegal activity,” according to the sheriff’s department statement. “The fire was first reported at 1:12 a.m.”
Anyone with information was asked to contact the sheriff’s San Dimas Station.
Deputies at the sheriff’s San Dimas Station responded to a total of 96 fireworks-related calls between noon Friday and 2:10 a.m. Saturday, officials said.
Berg said the figure falls in line with previous Independence Days, with about 20 percent of the fireworks complaints coming from San Dimas, and 80 percent coming from the nearby unincorporated county areas also patrolled by the station.

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Dugout at La Serna High School destroyed in apparent arson fire

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A dugout alongside the baseball diamond at La Serna High School was destroyed early Thursday in a suspected arson fire, police said.
Firefighters first responded to the fire at the campus, 15301 Youngwood Drive, about 5:30 a.m., Whittier police officials said in a written statement.
“We’re suspecting it’s an arson,” Whittier police Sgt. Jim Uhl said.
The dugout also included a locker room and a coaches office, he said.
Officials estimate that the fire caused $50,000 worth of damage.
When school officials arrived at the campus about 7 a.m. and encountered the damage, as well as firefighters, they notified Whittier police, officials said. They became suspicious, as it was the second fire reported at the school this week.
“Apparently, some trash cans were set on fire near the tennis courts Monday night June 9th, however the Whittier Police were not called and no structures were involved,” according to the police statement.
“This morning La Serna High School staff felt that the fires on Monday night and the fires this morning were not isolated events and asked for the Whittier Police Department’s involvement.”
No information regarding a suspect or motive was available, and no further details were released.
Detectives spent about six hours at the scene collecting evidence and searching for clues, officials said. Whittier police detectives are working in conjunction with investigators from the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
“Other than the fires occurring on this specific campus, there appears to be no specific threats to staff or students and no other fires have been reported to the Whittier Police Department by area schools over the last few months,” according to the police statement.
Anyone with information was asked to contact Detective Dineen at the Whittier Police Department, which can be reached at 562-567-9241.

PHOTO by Leo Jarzomb

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Woman accused of setting man’s sleeping bag on fire

PASADENA >> A homeless woman was behind bars Wednesday for allegedly setting fire to a sleeping bag with a man inside of it over the weekend.
Dtisha Deshawn Pickett, 37, was booked on suspicion of attempted murder following her arrest Tuesday, according to Pasadena police officials and Los Angeles County booking records.
After identifying Pickett as a suspect in the attack, which took place about 10:15 p.m. Sunday at Arroyo Boulevard and Bellevue Drive, a Pasadena Fire Department arson investigator went looking for her, Pasadena police Lt. John Dewar said. He found her shortly before 6 p.m. Tuesday and arrested her.
A 53-year-old Pasadena man was asleep inside the sleeping bag when Pickett set it on fire, Pasadena police Sgt. John Mercado said.
The man suffered a burn to his foot, but would not cooperate with investigators, Mercado said.
The woman told him she mistook him for someone else when she set him on fire and apologized, police said. It was not clear Wednesday who the woman intended to set on fire.
Pickett was being held in lieu of $1 million bail pending her initial court appearance, according to booking records.

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Alleged arsonist arrested in Norwalk

NORWALK — A man was behind bars Saturday on suspicion of lighting two trees and a business on fire in a Norwalk neighborhood, authorities said.
Eli Swifteagle, 33, was arrested on suspicion of arson within an hour of the second of the two arson fires, which occurred early Friday morning, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Lt. Eric Smitson said. His city of residence was not available.
He’s accused of using a lighter to ignite a tree in the 12300 block of Front Street about 3:40 a.m., the lieutenant said. The fire spread to a nearby business, scorching a tarp, some pallets and the roof of an outbuilding.
A second arson fire was reported about 6:45 a.m. at Funston Avenue and Foster Road, Smitson said. The second fire remained confined to a tree.
A passer-by spotted Swifteagle lighting the second fire and called deputies, Smitson said. The suspect was found in the area and arrested.
Deputies were looking into the possibility mental health issues played a role in Swifteagle’s alleged behavior.
According to county booking records, Swifteagle was being held in lieu of $75,000 bail at the Inmate Reception Center in Los Angeles pending his initial court appearance.

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Three cars destroyed in San Dimas arson fire

SAN DIMAS — Three parked cars were destroyed in an arson fire early Wednesday, officials said.
Officials responded to a vehicle fire just after 3:40 a.m. in the parking lot of a business park in the 600 block of W. Covina Boulevard, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Sgt. Rebecca Rodriquez said.
All three vehicles were owned by the same person, she added.
One of cars appeared to have caught fire first, before the flames spread to the other two, the sergeant said.
The hood of the first vehicle that caught fire had been stolen, Rodriquez said.
It was unclear if the car had been set afire intentionally, or if it had caught fire while someone was attempting to steal parts from it.
The destroyed cars were valued at about $10,000 in all, she added.
Deputies turned the investigation over to the investigators from the Sheriff’s Arson-Explosives Detail.

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Transient sentenced for torching Whittier garage

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NORWALK — A homeless woman received a two-year prison sentence Wednesday for lighting a fire that scorched a residential garage in Whittier, authorities said.
Sarah Hope Kleiner, 45, received her sentence from Norwalk Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza after pleading “no contest” to a count of recklessly causing a structure fire in connection with the fire, which broke out about 4:30 a.m. Jan. 8 at a home in the 7600 block of Washington Avenue, according to Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and Whittier police officials.
In addition to the prison term, Espinoza also ordered Kleiner to pay $20,000 in restitution, district attorney’s officials said in a written statement.
Kleiner set fire to a discarded Christmas tree, which then spread to the garage, investigators said. Inside the garage was a treadmill and other personal items belonging to the victim.
Several hours after the garage fire, another Whittier resident reported Kleiner had set fire to a Christmas tree discarded in a trash can, but had fled once confronted by the homeowner, Whittier police official said at the time.
No charges were filed in connection with the second fire, which resulted in no damage.

PHOTO courtesy of the Whittier Police Department

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Pasadena man, West Covina man accused of torching Lexus for insurance money

PASADENA >> Investigators Friday jailed a West Covina and a Pasadena man on suspicion of reporting a car stolen from an Arcadia shopping mall, then torching it in Pasadena in an insurance fraud scheme.
Tony Martinez Jr, 26, of West Covina and Robert Luis Palacios, 44, of Pasadena, were arrested Friday morning and booked on suspicion of arson, conspiracy, insurance fraud and filing a false police report, according to Pasadena Fire Department officials and Los Angeles County booking records.
Martinez owned the scorched 2008 Lexus IS 250 involved in the alleged fraud, fire spokeswoman Lisa Derderian said. She described Palacios as his friend.
The arrest came following more than six weeks of investigation, which began about 8:45 p.m. Jan. 25 when Pasadena police were notified of a 2008 Lexus IS 250 which was on fire at Lincoln Avenue and Del Monte Street, Pasadena police Lt. Jason Clawson said at the time.
After extinguishing the flames, firefighters determined the fire was suspicious, Clawson said. A possible suspect was spotted leaving the area of the burning car.
About 45 minutes later, Martinez called police in Arcadia to report his 2008 Lexus IS 250 had been stolen from the Westfield Santa Anita shopping mall, according to Arcadia police Sgt. John Bonomo.
Investigators determined Martinez and Palacios had conspired to stage a fake car theft and torch the Lexus as part of a conspiracy to commit insurance fraud, culminating in Friday’s arrests, Pasadena fire officials said.
According to county booking records, Martinez was released from custody a little more than three hours after his arrest on $50,000 bail. Palacios remained behind bars Friday in lieu of $50,000 bail pending his initial court appearance.

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Ex-television dog groomer headed to prison for Pasadena arson

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PASADENA >> A Pasadena pet groomer and former reality television show star pleaded guilty Thursday to arson for torching a carport in 2012, authorities said.
Artis Willie Knox, 32, pleaded guilty to arson of an inhabited structure and identity theft charges in the Pasadena branch of Los Angeles Superior Court, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office spokesman Ricardo Santiago said.
He was expected to receive a prison sentence of 5 years and 8 months at an April 23 sentencing, Santiago added. Knox will also be required to register as a convicted arsonist on a statewide database.
Knox was named the 2008 “Groomer of the Year” on Animal Planet’s “Groomer Has It” TV show, and subsequently had his own Animal Planet show titled, “Beverly Hills Groomer.”
He set fire to a carport containing five cars that was attached to an apartment building where he was living in the 600 block of South Marengo Avenue on Sept. 8, 2012, according to Pasadena Fire Department officials and prosecutors.
The blaze caused an estimated $200,000 worth of damage to the carport, which was attached to an occupied apartment building, as well as five vehicles inside, according to Pasadena Fire Department spokeswoman Lisa Derderian. Two of the vehicles were destroyed, while the other three were damaged.
Knox was initially charged with six counts of arson: one for the carport and one for each of the scorched cars.
Though he pleaded guilty to a single count of arson, he was ordered to pay restitution for the burned vehicles as well, Santiago said.
Knox ignited the arson fire because he could not afford his rent and hoped the fire would allow him to stay longer, Santiago said.
And Knox had several other suspicious fires in his past, officials said.
“He was previously investigated (for arsons), but had never been charged until now,” Santiago said.
Authorities noted suspicious fired in connection with several homes, businesses and cars, “for which he was in arrears,” Santiago said.
After winning a $50,000 and a grooming truck in the 2008 reality TV contest, Knox opened a pet grooming business in Los Angeles.
But the business closed in 2009 after experiencing a fire. No charges were filed in connection with the grooming shop fire.
In addition to the arson, Knox also pleaded guilty Thursday to a charge of identity theft Thursday, officials said.
That charge stemmed from the theft of money from a woman who lived in his Marengo Avenue apartment before he moved in, Santiago explained.
The woman had made a deposit to rent a hall for a wedding, but was ultimately issued a refund by the company, Santiago said.
The check arrived in the mail after the woman had moved out and Knox had moved in, Santiago said. He cashed it.
The amount of money stolen was not available Friday.
Santiago said the handling prosecutor declined to comment on the case pending the sentencing.

— PHOTO courtesy of Jamie Nicholson/Pasadena Fire Department

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