Malibu blaze appears to be arson Witnesses spotted 2 near flash point

November 04, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

MALIBU, Calif. -- Investigators from at least four agencies probing causes of the Malibu fire scoured the hills above the seaside community yesterday, emerging with evidence that the latest Southern California inferno appeared to be the work of at least one arsonist.

According to one law enforcement official, witnesses near the flash point of the blaze spotted two men speeding from the area in a blue pickup.

The initial descriptions of the truck's occupants were sketchy, but investigators spent yesterday canvassing possible witnesses and videotaping the scene. One witness said he was riding his motorcycle along Topanga Canyon Road when he spotted two men in a pickup truck. That witness, who met with arson investigators and homicide detectives Tuesday and again yesterday, said the men were acting suspiciously.

Another witness who lives in the area saw the blaze as it was beginning and radioed Topanga Firewatch officials to report the fire. He, too, said he saw two men near the fire, and that neighbors told him they had seen two men leaving the area in a pickup truck.

"They said they wanted to hypnotize me, to get me to relive it in some way, to find out who was responsible for this catastrophe," that witness told the Los Angeles Times.

As they launched their probe of the latest suspicious fire to rip through Southern California, fire investigators from the city and county of Los Angeles were joined by sheriff's deputies and agents from the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Unlike other fires from the past week, the latest blaze is under investigation as a possible homicide.

Homicide detectives joined the probe because one fire victim, British film director Duncan Gibbins, died late yesterday, meaning that whoever set the fire could be charged with homicide.

Authorities have concluded that at least seven of the major fires, and a few of the smaller ones that scorched Southern California during the past week, appear to be the work of arsonists.

Many more fires remain under investigation, and arsonists could be found responsible once the final inquiries are completed.

Speaking at a command post for firefighters battling the Malibu blaze, Gov. Pete Wilson said yesterday that the reward for the person or people responsible for setting that fire has grown to $125,000 -- an amount matched later by a Los Angeles businessman, bringing the total to $250,000.

Mr. Wilson also said he supports increasing the maximum state penalty for arson to life in prison.

Under current law, arson carries a maximum sentence of eight years if the fire burns an inhabited structure and nine years it causes great bodily injury. If the fire kills anyone, the arsonist can be prosecuted for homicide.

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