Crime & Justice

Da Vinci fire: Suspect in big downtown Los Angeles blaze pleads not guilty to arson

An early-morning fire consumed a seven-story apartment complex that was still under construction in downtown Los Angeles on Monday, Dec. 8, 2014. The suspect, 56-year-old Dawud Abdulwali, was charged Thursday, May 28, 2015, with arson of a structure and aggravated arson.
An early-morning fire consumed a seven-story apartment complex that was still under construction in downtown Los Angeles on Monday, Dec. 8, 2014. The suspect, 56-year-old Dawud Abdulwali, was charged Thursday, May 28, 2015, with arson of a structure and aggravated arson.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Prosecutors charged a man with arson Thursday for allegedly starting a massive inferno that destroyed an unfinished apartment building and damaged nearby office towers in downtown Los Angeles.

Dawud Abdulwali, 56, of Los Angeles, was charged with one count each of arson of a structure and aggravated arson, said the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

Abdulwali pleaded not guilty to both charges, the Los Angeles District Attorney said Thursday.

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 more than $1 million bail. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 10 years to life in state prison. The district attorney's office said it didn't know if Abdulwali has an attorney.

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.

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.

This story has been updated.