Series of small fires near Azusa deemed ‘very suspicious’

AZUSA — Police and arson investigators suspected “very suspicious” series of fires reported in a brush area near Fish Canyon Sunday may have been the work of an arsonist, authorities said.The first in a series of three fires was reported about 12:40 p.m. along Encanto Parkway, near the Vulcan Materials Company on Fish Canyon Road, Azusa police and Los Angeles County Fire Department officials said.
Firefighters made quick work of the spot fires, which were under control in matter of minutes, fire Dispatch Supervisor Bernard Peters said. Water dropping aircraft were on stand-by, but ultimately were not needed.
The three small fires scorched less than an acre in total, but caught the eye of arson investigators.
“They’re suspected to be deliberately set,” Los Angeles County Fire Department Capt. Gerald Gonzales said. He added that investigators were, “leaning toward arson.”
It appeared homeless people camp in the area, however it was not immediately clear if that played a role in the fires, he said.
Officials noted several suspicious factors in connection with the fire.
“When our officers went on-scene, it appeared to them that there were flare-ups that were occurring in what almost looked like measured intervals,” Schmidt said.
Additionally, “They did find a motorcycle that appeared to have been concealed nearby,” the sergeant said. The registered owner could not be found.
“At the very least, it’s very suspicious,” Schmidt said.
Another small fire was reported in the same general area and quickly extinguished by 5:30 a.m. Sunday, Gonzales added. The cause of that fire was not determined.
The fire burned very close to the scene of the Madre Fire, which scorched 268 acres in late-September.
That fire was determined to be human caused, though investigators stopped short of labeling it arson, Schmidt said.

Pasadena man accused of torching own car

PASADENA — Officials arrested a Pasadena man Friday on suspicion of setting fire to his own car in an alleged arson earlier in the year.
Mazi Taylor, 55, was arrested about 2 p.m. on suspicion of four arson-related charges, according to Pasadena Fire Department spokeswoman Lisa Derderian and Los Angeles County booking records.
He’s accused of torching his own 2007 Suzuki Forenza in the early morning hours of Sept. 30 as it was parked in the 1200 block of North Mentor Avenue, Pasadena police and fire officials said.
A man was spotted running from the scene, and the fire was immediately suspected to be the work of an arsonist, officials said.
He told investigators at the time that he was at work when the fire broke out, and had been notified by his girlfriend that his car was on fire.
But the Pasadena Fire Department’s arson investigator concluded differently, arresting Taylor in connection with the fire Friday afternoon.
The motive in the alleged crime was not available.
According to booking records, Taylor was being held in lieu of $50,000 bail pending his initial court appearance.

Transient accused of lighting brush fire in Pasadena

PASADENA – A transient was arrested Thursday for allegedly starting a brush fire on a hill.
The blaze charred an area measuring about 100 square feet. Pasadena Police Lt. Vasken Gourdikian said no structures were threatened.
Shortly before 10 p.m., he said a passerby saw a man on a hillside at New York Drive and Sierra Madre Villa Avenue setting a fire. The witness called police.
Gourdikian said officers found the man nearby. He had a lighter in his possession and was identified by witnesses, the lieutenant added.
Michael Went, a 51-year-old transients, was arrested on suspicion of arson, Lt. Jason Clawson said. It was not clear if the fire was intentionally set or accidental.
“He’s not saying a whole lot,” Gourdikian said.
Pasadena Fire, Arcadia Fire and Los Angeles County Fire department responded to the brush fire, police said.
According to county booking records, Went was being held in lieu of $22,500 bail pending his initial court appearance.

Transient accused of sparking Glendora brush fire

Edward Zavala, 35, transient

A homeless man was arrested late Wednesday in connection with a brush fire on Glendora Mountain Road north of Big Dalton Canyon, Glendora police said Thursday.
The fire was spotted climbing 100 feet up the hillside by a Glendora Police officer at 9:23 p.m. Wednesday, Lt. Brian Summers said in a statement.
Capt. Tim Staab said the on-duty police officer was able to get responders to the scene while the fire was still small.
“It could have been just horrible,” Staab said, referring to the fire’s proximity to the Angeles National Forest.
The initial officer spotted Edward Zavala, 35, walking away from the fire scene and he was arrested on suspicion of arson after making inconsistent statements, Summers wrote.
“Zavala later told officers that he accidentally started the fire with his lighter while attempting to use it as a light source and panicked, fleeing the area,” Summers wrote. “The lighter was recovered.”
Responders from the Los Angeles County Fire Department were able to contain the fire to a quarter acre and county arson investigators assisted the police department, Summers said.
Zavala was being held at the Glendora City Jail on a felony charge of recklessly starting a fire. Bail was set at $20,000.

- Melissa Masatani

PHOTO of Edward Zavala courtesy of the Glendora Police Department.

Transient accused of torching palm, car tree in South San Gabriel

SOUTH SAN GABRIEL — A transient was arrested Wednesday for allegedly setting fire to a palm tree worth about $1,500.
Lt. Ignacio Somoano of the sheriff’s Temple Station said a vehicle was also burned, causing $3,000 in damages.
Detectives are checking if the man was behind another tree torching earlier. Both incidents happened in the unincorporated county area of South San Gabriel.
Somoano said a witness saw a man set a tree on fire in the 1400 block of Potrero Grande Drive at 4:48 p.m. The tree was located in front of a residence.
The witness gave deputies a description of the arsonist.
Deputies detained a man at Del Mar Avenue and Potrero Grande Drive.
Somoano said a 31-year-old transient was arrested on suspicion of arson. He was being held at the Temple station jail on a $50,000 bail.
Citing the ongoing investigation, Somoano didn’t name the suspect.
A similar incident happened at 3:30 pm in the 7800 block of Steddom Drive.
“A guy inside the house smells smoke, comes out to look and sees a tree on fire,” Somoano said.
Firefighters doused the tree fire.
No one has been arrested for the Steddom Drive fire.

– Ruby Gonzales

Man sentenced for arson fire that destroyed sanctuary of Hacienda Heights church

7-19-13 SHIGASENTENCE01

A judge sentenced man to 18 years to life in prison Friday for lighting an arson fire that destroyed the sanctuary of a Catholic Church in Hacienda Heights on April 16 of 2011.
A Pomona Superior Court jury earlier this month convicted Gregory Yusuke Shiga, 35, of Hacienda Heights of five felony counts related to the arson fire that caused about $9 million worth of damage at St. John Vianney Church, 1345 Turnbull Canyon Road.
Two priests sleeping in a rectory that also caught fire adjacent to the destroyed sanctuary narrowly escaped from the building, according to prosecutors and investigators.
“I never got the impression from Mr. Shiga that he was remorseful for his actions or their effect on a large community that cared deeply about that place,” said Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Renee Rose, who prosecuted the case.
She went on to request Judge Thomas Falls hand down the maximum sentences for the charges under the law, describing Shiga as a continuing threat to the public.
Falls agreed, imposing the maximum sentence of 18 years to life in prison.
Shiga was convicted of aggravated arson, arson of a structure, arson of an inhabited structure, possession of an incendiary device and burglary. The jury also found true special allegations that multiple structures were burned, the fire was likely to cause injury and that an accelerant was used in the arson.
Shiga is eligible to receive 15 percent credit for good behavior while incarcerated for eight years of his prison sentence. However he must serve 10 years in full, without reductions for good behavior, Rose explained. She estimated Shiga will first become eligible for a parole hearing in about 16 years.
Shiga previously underwent a mental evaluation which determined he was fit to stand trial, though officials said Shiga adamantly denied suffering from any form of mental illness, according to Los Angeles Archdiocese Canonical Auditor Marty Gallagher, a former FBI agent who worked alongside church officials and law enforcement officials during the investigation.
Against the judge’s advice, Shiga fired his defense attorney and chose to represent himself just before his trial began, officials said. But Falls said Shiga had shown he was aware of what was going on and even complimented him on his courtroom demeanor and knowledge.
When asked by Judge Falls if he had a statement to make prior to receiving his sentence Friday, Shiga responded that he did.
“It’s 9:17 a.m. July 19th. That’s about it,” he said.
Shiga, who was described by investigators as highly intelligent, “is fixated with numbers,” Rose said.
Among other tattoos not visible in the courtroom, Shiga had the number seven tattooed on top of his left hand, and the number nine tattooed on top of his right hand.
The significance of the numbers was unclear, other than they appeared to be his favorites, according to an investigator.
Shiga broke into the sanctuary of St. John Vianney Church shortly after midnight on the week before Easter, Yoshino said.
He brought with him a backpack containing eight to ten rolls of toilet paper that had been soaked in flammable liquid, he said. The specific substance or substances used were not available.
He placed the fuel-soaked toilet paper rolls as “strategic” locations within the sanctuary, Yoshino said.
He opened up every other window in the sanctuary to help the fire spread faster, Rose said.
Using a sprayer similar to the type used for spraying weeds, Shiga then sprayed the ceiling and walls of the church with flammable liquid before using a tiki torch to set the structure ablaze, Rose said. The sanctuary was quickly engulfed with flames, which also spread to the occupied rectory next door where two priests were sleeping upstairs.
Following his arrest more than a year after the fire, Rose said investigators found Shiga had visited and photographed the church before the arson fire.
A break in the case came when a former school teacher of Shiga’s came forward to report a suspicious encounter with Shiga prior to the arson, Rose said.
Barbara Clark taught Shiga about 20 years ago when he attended St. Mark’s Lutheran School in Hacienda Heights, according to the prosecutor.
Her former pupil arrived at the campus about two weeks prior to the arson, where Clark was principal, Rose said. He spoke to her and asked many questions about St. John Vianney Church and the symbolism behind its statues and other items.
“It didn’t mean much to her at the time,” Rose said. But following the massive fire, Clark decided to report the encounter to authorities.
Witnesses shown photographic line-ups including Shiga then identified him as the arsonist, she said. He was arrested May 14, 2012.
Beyond a general grievance against the Catholic Church, of which Shiga was never a member, a definitive motive was not revealed through the trial, according to Sgt. Derek Yoshino of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Arson-Explosives Detail. Sheriff’s investigators, along with FBI agents, investigated the case.
“He indicated he wanted to make a statement against the Catholic Church,” Yoshino said. But the arsonist never elaborated.
“It was pretty general,” the sergeant said. “At this point, we’re left to assume what his actual motive was.”
Rose said while Shiga may have claimed to have complaints regarding the church in an attempt to justify the crimes, it was always about Shiga himself.
“I think he did it for the attention,” Rose said.
Even as he waited to be sentenced to prison, Shiga seemed to enjoy being the focus of attention. He appeared pleased to see reporters in the courtroom.
Sentencings normally are not carried out so quickly following a trial, Falls said. “The defendant requested a speedy sentencing.”
In addition to sentencing Shiga to prison, Falls ordered him to pay the church $8.9 million in restitution, though he acknowledged the convict would likely never be able to pay it.
St. John Vianney Church Rev. Msgr. Tim Nichols accepted the amount on behalf of the church.
Gallagher thanked the sheriff’s, FBI and district attorney’s office officials for their hard work in the case.
“Thank God there were no deaths,” he said. It’s a tragic event. It could have been horrendous.”

PHOTO of Gregory Shiga, 35, of Hacienda Heights during sentencing on Friday, July 19, 2013, in Pomona Superior Court. He was convicted of a massive $9 million arson that destroyed the sanctuary of St. John Vianney Church in Hacienda Heights. (Staff photo by Walt Mancini)

Arson fires reported at neighboring car washes in South Whittier

SOUTH WHITTIER — In the second arson fire reported at a coin-operated car wish in two days, investigators ruled a fire that caused about $50,000 in damage to the lobby of a car wash early Wednesday was the work of an arsonist.
The fire was reported just after 3:10 a.m. at the Valley View Car Wash, 11806 Valley Blvd., at Leffingwell Road in an unincorporated county area just south of Whittier.
It caused an estimated $50,000 worth of damage to the lobby of the structure before firefighters extinguished the flames, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Lt. Bill Evans said.
Upon investigation, Los Angeles County Fire Department officials and deputies from the Sheriff’s Arson-Explosives Detail concluded the fire had been intentionally set, the lieutenant said.
No information regarding a suspect was available, and Evans declined to discuss how the fire may have ignited, citing the ongoing investigation.
Deputies and fire officials responded to another arson fire about 4:10 a.m. Monday, just across the street at Classic Touch Auto Detailing, 14209 Leffingwell Road, officials said.
In that case, “A flammable substance was placed in front of a couple of security doors and ignited,” Evans said.
Firefighters put out the fire before it caused any damage, he added. No suspect description was available.
Due to the close proximity and time-frame in which the fires occurred, Evans said, investigators were looking into the possibility the same fire bug was responsible for both crimes.
Anyone with information can reach the Sheriff’s Norwalk Station at 562-863-8711.

Preliminary hearing underway for man accused of lighting double-fatal fire at Pasadena boarding house

PASADENA — A preliminary hearing was underway Wednesday for a man accused of two counts of murder and other crimes for an arson fire that killed two fellow residents of a Pasadena boarding house, officials said.
Garth Allen Robbins, 50, appeared in Pasadena Superior Court in connection with the deadly, fast spreading, early-morning fire that broke out Nov. 1 at the building, 1385 El Sereno Ave., court officials said.
At the hearing, which officials said was expected to last more than a day, Judge Elaine Lu listened to a summary of the evidence from both the prosecution and defense in order to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to order Robbins to stand trial.
Killed in the fire were Cliff Juan Clark, 56, and Paul Richard Boyd, 75, according to Los Angeles District Attorney’s officials. Another resident, 65-year-old Perry Simons, was badly injured in the fire but survived.
Robbins pleaded not guilty last year to two counts of special circumstance murder, one count of arson causing great bodily injury, 15 counts of attempted murder and one count of arson of an inhabited structure.
There were a total of 19 people, including Robbins, living in the three-story building at the time of the fire, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s officials said.
The defendant used “a device designed to accelerate the fire” to ignite the fire, prosecutors said in a written statement, however further details were not released. A motive in the alleged fatal arson was also unclear.
The allegation of multiple murder makes Robbins eligible for the death penalty under California law, however prosecutors have not yet decided whether to seek capital punishment in the case.
The children of Clark have filed a claim against Pasadena, alleging the city was previously aware of code violations and a lack of permits at the facility and should have shut it down prior the the fire.
According to county booking records, Robbins was being held without bail at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles.

Deputies pull unconscious man from burning Pico Rivera apartment; arson suspected

PICO RIVERA — Two deputies pulled an unconscious man from a smoke-filled apartment Wednesday during a fire officials said appeared to have been set intentionally.
The rescued man and the two deputies were all taken to a hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation following the incident, which took place about 1:30 a.m. at an apartment complex in the 8600 block of Whittier Boulevard, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Lt. Robert Smith said.
The deputies were released from the hospital later in the morning, while the 51-year-old man they pulled from the home remained hospitalized in serious but stable condition, Smith said.
Deputies Michael Calderon and George Madrid were the first on-scene, the lieutenant said.
“(They) saw thick black smoke inside the apartment and billowing out,” he said.
Neighbors were running from the fire, and one of them told the deputies that there was a man inside the burning apartment, Smith said.
“Basically disregarding their own safety, the deputies entered the unit and found an unconscious male on the ground,” the lieutenant said. “They scooped him up and they dragged him out to safety.”
Firefighters quickly extinguished the fire, which remained confined to items inside the apartment and caused an estimated $1,000 worth of damage, Smith said.
The fire stemmed from flammable materials, “like papers and different things,” left on a burning stove range, the lieutenant said. It initially appeared to have been an intentional act, and investigators from the Sheriff’s Arson-Explosives Unit were were summoned to the scene.
The injured man was alone in the apartment when the deputies arrived, Smith said. But whether he himself started the fire remained under investigation.

Charges filed against serial arson suspect from South Pasadena

ALHAMBRA — Prosecutors Wednesday filed 18 counts of arson and attempted arson against a South Pasadena accused of torching brush and cars in Pasadena, South Pasadena and Los Angeles during a five-month arson spree that ended with his arrest over the weekend, officials said.
Javier Adolfo Viera, 35, was charged in Alhambra Superior Court, according to Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office Jane Robison.
Though investigators linked Viera to 26 fires, he was formally charged with 18 counts of arson, according to a felony complaint filed against him.
If convicted as charged, he could face up to 32 years in state prison, Robison said.
Following his arrest Sunday after a car fire in the 6100 block of Oak Hill in Los Angeles, Viera confessed to a series of arsons, officials said, saying that he never meant to hurt anyone and “needed help.”
The suspect told investigators he was frustrated by financial problems, and had taken to torching luxury cars out of jealousy, according to South Pasadena police Sgt. Robert Bartl.
Viera was being held in lieu of $2 million bail pending his scheduled arraingment, which was scheduled for May 6 in Alhambra Superior Court, according to court officials and booking records.