Crime & Justice

Da Vinci fire was maliciously set, ATF investigator says

Investigators have determined the huge Da Vinci fire in downtown Los Angeles was arson.
Investigators have determined the huge Da Vinci fire in downtown Los Angeles was arson.
Courtesy of KaOri Pamon and Rejeana Black

An investigator for the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said Friday that the Da Vinci fire in downtown Los Angeles was maliciously set by an arsonist.

In California, the crime of arson can include cases where someone damages property as a result of acting recklessly.

That’s not what happened in the massive fire that destroyed the Da Vinci Apartment Complex in downtown Los Angeles, a spokesperson for the ATF told KPCC.

For example, a homeless person did not accidentally set the Da Vinci ablaze in the early morning hours of Dec. 8 by lighting a fire to warm their hands.

“That would definitely be something that you could exclude,” said ATF Special Agent Meredith Davis. “Investigators were able to pick out enough pieces of evidence to exclude accident.”

Officials refuse to talk about the evidence, including any accelerant or delayed ignition devices they may have found. The property covers more than 1.2 million square feet adjacent to the 110 Freeway. Investigators sifted through more than 75,000 cubic feet of debris, according to Davis.

Despite the size of the fire and amount of debris, the fact the complex was only partially constructed gave investigators an advantage. “There wasn’t commercial air conditioning units or other heavy things that would have collapsed on top of the debris to deal with,” said Davis.

Los Angeles fire officials also remain tight-lipped about the investigation. “Investigators are following up on a number of different leads,” said Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Peter Sanders.

“Arson can be hard to solve,” he added.  “The crime scene is burned. So sometimes evidence is burned with it.”

The investigation reached a turning point with the determination that an arsonist caused the fire. “Our investigation at the site is complete,” Sanders said. The property has been released back to its owner, G.H. Palmer Associates. The owner did not return a call for comment.

In addition, the ATF’s National Response Team, a group of about 25 top arson investigators, left town Friday.

“At the height of the investigation, we had 55 to 60 investigators on this,” Sanders said.  At least 20 investigators from the LAFD, ATF and LAPD continue to work the case.

“I can tell you we have the best arson squad in the business,” Sanders said of the LAFD.

“They’re actively working the investigation and I hope to release more soon,” the ATF’s Davis added.