A man accused of setting fire to an under-construction apartment complex in downtown Los Angeles, causing tens of millions of dollars in damage, pleaded not guilty in court Thursday to arson charges.
Dawud Abdulwali, 56, was charged in connection with arson of a structure and aggravated arson, with a complaint alleging that he used an accelerant to start the fire.
The blaze destroyed the seven-story Da Vinci Apartments complex at 900 West Temple Street in December 2014, covering some 180,000 square feet. Flames billowed into the air, making smoke visible for miles and radiating enough heat to shatter the windows of nearby office towers.
Media requests for pool video and still cameras in the courtroom were initially denied by Judge Sergio Tapia, citing concerns raised by defense attorney Mearl Lottman that witness identification could be an issue at trial. When Judge Tapia did approve video coverage, it was on condition the camera not show Abdulwali.
During the arraignment, attorney Lottman requested the required bail level be reduced from one million dollars to the $500,000 that is listed in the bail schedule for the type of arson charged in count one. Prosecutor Sean Carney opposed any reducation, arguing that Abdulwali is a flight risk.
Carney told the court Abdulwali has traveled internationally twice since the fire, and just two weeks ago, told a witness he was planning to move out of the country. Carney also referred to the enormous level of damage, which he said approaches $100 million.
"This is not your normal arson," Carney said.
Moreover, He cited Abdulwali's "significant" criminal record, including convictions for grand theft auto, fraud, grand theft and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Judge Tapia denied the defense request, kept the million dollar bail level, and added a provision that if Abdulwali does post bail, he must surrender his passport.
Abdulwali was exposed as a squatter by the NBC4 I-Team in 2010, when he was found to be living in a foreclosed mansion in Woodland Hills. At the time he identified himself as Dawud Walli on what appeared to be a falsified lease for the vacant three-story home.
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Law enforcement sources confirmed to NBC4 that the man exposed in the report is the same man who is accused in the fire.
Abdulwali, of Los Angeles, was arrested without incident Tuesday morning on an unrelated traffic charge. Authorities declined to discuss the evidence implicating him, but did give credit to modern technology. Prior to Abduwali's arrest, an LA City fire official had told a community group that a video camera recorded the fire starter parking his car on the side of the 110 Harbor freeway, then entering the adjacent construction site with containers, presumably with the accelerant fuel that enabled the blaze to spread so quickly.
The car the fire starter drove was a taxi cab, according to a law enforcement source close to the investigation.
Around the time period of the fire, Abduwali had a white taxi and used it for transportation to and from where he was living, according to the owner of the house in South Los Angeles where Abduwali was renting a room.
"He was a taxi driver so far as we knew," said Poleth Chavez, who described Abduwali as "a very normal guy."
In December, Abduwali prepaid his rent and left for two months, Chavez said.
Later, she noticed the taxi was gone and he was driving an older truck, which he parked on the street and was towed only a few weeks ago. "He went through a few cars recently," Chavez said.
She had not met him before he responded last fall to a listing for the room posted on Craig's list, she said.
Abduwali was arrested several blocks from the house. On Thursday, law enforcement officials were obtaining a search warrant for Abduwali's room.
"It's an ongoing investigation," said prosecutor Carney.
Rewards totaling an unprecedented $170,000 were announced in January to help make an arrest, but LA Mayor Eric Garcetti said public tips did not lead to the arrest.
There were no additional suspects, said Special Agent Carlos Canino of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He declined to discuss motive, but characterized it as not a terrorist act, and said Abdulwali has no known connection to the Da Vinci.
The downtown LA blaze damaged nearby high-rise structures, melted overhead signs on the Harbor (110) Freeway and melted computers of a neighboring office building on Figueroa Street.
The fire caused up to $30 million in damage to the under-construction second phase of the Da Vinci Apartments, the latest in a series of downtown, freeway-adjacent apartment complexes developed and managed by real estate entrepreneur Geoffrey Palmer and his companies.
All the burned lumber has been removed from the site. Last month, the developer obtained a permit to cut into the reinforced concrete base known as the "podium," and replace sections found to be damaged by the heat from the wood that burned above.
After the Abdulwali arrest this week, Palmer's company did not respond to requests for comment. Last month, the Downtown News reported Palmer intended to rebuild the second phase, expecting it to take another ten months.