How the L.A. Arsonist Was Caught

For a few days over the long New Year’s weekend, it looked as though someone was determined to burn down the entire city of Los Angeles, building by building and car by car. And for just as many days, it looked as though he might eventually pull it off, so flummoxed were firefighters and police at the number and apparent randomness of the attacks.

Beginning in the early morning hours of December 29 and continuing until the early morning of January 2, more than 50 fires were set in the Los Angeles area, most of them in and around Hollywood but with some occurring over the hill and far out into the San Fernando Valley. Most of the fires began with cars torched in carports and garages, but many of the blazes spread to homes and apartment buildings. No one was seriously injured but scores were made homeless and many others lost their cars. With most of the fires set in the dead of night, the attacks were all the more disquieting.

A crime spree like this one has the potential to bring a city to its knees, so the LAPD mobilized every asset at its disposal to bring it to a stop. With the exception of some serial-killer investigations, I’ve never in my long career seen as much investigative weight thrown into a case. Most of the LAPD’s detectives were scheduled to be off over the weekend, yet dozens of them from all over the city canceled their holiday plans so as to field tips from the public and follow up on any that looked promising. Yet for all of the information that flowed in, there was nothing that pointed police toward any one suspect. On New Year’s Eve in Hollywood, a night when even in ordinary circumstances things tend to get crazy, the usual heavy deployment of officers was supplemented by uniformed and undercover officers sent in from other parts of town. With no identified suspect to look for, without even a description of one, officers drove the streets hoping to get lucky.

But at that point all the luck was still with the arsonist. Between three in the afternoon and eight in the evening, ten fires were set in and around Hollywood, this despite the many cops searching the very neighborhoods where the fires were set. So numerous were the undercover cops, in fact, that their scruffy appearance sometimes attracted the attention of uniformed officers who believed them to be possible suspects. At other times, undercover cops focused on each other, making for some potentially dangerous encounters.