Suspect in downtown Los Angeles arson case pleads not guilty

May 28, 2015, 3:48 PM
FILE – In this early Monday, Dec. 8, 2014, file photo, Los Angeles firefighters battle a fire...
FILE - In this early Monday, Dec. 8, 2014, file photo, Los Angeles firefighters battle a fire at an apartment building under construction next to the Harbor Freeway (Interstate 110) Freeway in Los Angeles. The fire gutted the 1.3 million-square-foot Da Vinci complex. A law enforcement official says a man has been arrested for allegedly causing a massive inferno that destroyed an unfinished apartment building and damaged adjacent office towers in downtown Los Angeles. Damage was estimated at $20 million to $30 million. No one was hurt. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A man pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges alleging he set a massive inferno that destroyed an unfinished apartment building and damaged nearby office towers in downtown Los Angeles, prosecutors said.

Dawud Abdulwali, 56, of Los Angeles, was arraigned on one count each of arson of a structure and aggravated arson, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office said. He’s scheduled to return to court June 11.

Prosecutors say Abdulwali used an accelerant to start the Dec. 8 fire on the fourth floor of the seven-story Da Vinci complex. He allegedly set the blaze “willfully, maliciously, deliberately, with premeditation, and with intent to cause injury,” the complaint states.

Abdulwali remains jailed on $1 million bail. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 10 years to life in state prison. The district attorney’s office said no attorney was listed for Abdulwali.

His arrest Tuesday culminated a six-month investigation of the Los Angeles Fire Department, city police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Officials would not say what evidence led them to Abdulwali.

Authorities said the blaze caused $20 million to $30 million in damage to the building site and another $50 million to $60 million to a city-owned building nearby.

Investigators believe Abdulwali acted alone and had no connection to the complex that burned, said Carlos A. Canino, special agent in charge of the ATF Los Angeles Field Division.

Abdulwali was renting a room in South Los Angeles last year, his landlord, Poleth Chavez, told the Los Angeles Times. In December, around the time of the fire, he paid two months’ rent up front and left, saying he was heading to San Francisco.

“He’s pretty quiet,” Chavez said. “He keeps to himself.”

The blaze gutted the 1.3 million-square-foot Da Vinci complex that was in the wood-framing stage, sending up flames that could be seen from miles away.

The fire’s heat cracked or shattered hundreds of windows in neighboring buildings, ignited small fires in one and damaged an adjacent freeway. The complex’s developer, Geoff Palmer, said then that he intended to rebuild, but it’s unclear where those plans stand.

Authorities declined to discuss details of how they identified a suspect, but Canino said hundreds of people spent thousands of hours on the investigation.

“Cutting-edge technology” and old-fashioned “wearing-out-the-shoe-leather” police work were involved, he said.

Mayor Eric Garcetti said the fire caused $20 million to $30 million in damage to the building site and an additional $50 million to $60 million to a city-owned building nearby.

Canino said the fire and the damage costs “could have been a lot worse.”

“You know, different wind change, different atmospheric conditions, it could have been a $200 million fire instead of a $90 million fire,” he said.

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Suspect in downtown Los Angeles arson case pleads not guilty