Firefighters at the site of the Da Vinci apartment construction fire, Dec. 8, 2014. Photo via OnScene.tv.
Firefighters at the site of the Da Vinci apartment construction fire, Dec. 8, 2014. Photo via OnScene.tv.

A 56-year-old man accused of setting fire to an under-construction apartment complex in downtown Los Angeles in December, starting a conflagration that melted freeway signs and damaged nearby buildings, was charged Thursday with arson.

Dawud Abdulwali pleaded not guilty to one felony count each of arson of a structure and aggravated arson, according to the District Attorney’s Office. The complaint alleges that an accelerant was used to set the Dec. 8, 2014, blaze.

According to the District Attorney’s Office, the accelerant was used on the fourth floor of the seven-story Da Vinci apartment complex that was being built near Temple Street and Fremont Avenue, near the Harbor (110) and Hollywood (101) freeways.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Sergio C. Tapia II ordered Abdulwali to be held in lieu of $1 million bail while awaiting his next court appearance June 11. The judge also ordered Abdulwali to surrender his passport if the bail is posted.

Deputy District Attorney Sean Carney told the judge that Abdulwali has traveled internationally at least twice since the fire and has a “somewhat significant criminal history” with offenses including theft.

“This isn’t your normal arson,” the prosecutor said, noting that he has been informed that damages are near $100 million.

Deputy Public Defender Mearl Lottman argued unsuccessfully that the charges call for $500,000 bail, saying his client could be subjected to electronic monitoring.

Abdulwali faces 10 years to life in prison if convicted as charged, prosecutors said.

The Los Angeles man was arrested Tuesday by the Los Angeles Police Department’s Anti-Terrorism Division in connection with the blaze, according to the LAPD. The LAPD investigated the fire along with the Los Angeles Fire Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The overnight fire caused $20 million to $30 million in damage to the Da Vinci apartment complex, according to the fire department. The 1.3 million- square-foot complex was largely in the framing stage, and at least two-thirds of the structure collapsed during the fire.

In addition to destroying most of the Da Vinci complex, the fire also damaged two nearby office towers owned by the city. Mayor Eric Garcetti said the fire caused about $50 million to $60 million in damage to city property.

On Tuesday, the mayor said Abdulwali’s arrest is proof that if a crime is committed, “we will arrest you, we will prosecute you to the full extent of the law.”

Rewards totaling $170,000 were offered for information leading to the person who set the blaze. It was not immediately clear if anyone would be eligible to claim the reward.

Investigators announced 10 days after the fire that it was the result of arson, saying they had “recovered sufficient evidence to eliminate all known potential accidental causes and determine the fire was intentionally set.”

As the investigation progressed, officials released video of two people who were seen near the building around the time the fire broke out.

Last month, LAFD Battalion Chief Steve Ruda told members of an Echo Park neighborhood council that investigators had video of a suspect walking into the complex with cans of fuel, the Los Angeles Times reported. Ruda said the suspect “torched the building up from the freeway side and then escaped.”

LAFD officials declined to comment on Ruda’s reported remarks.

“This is another reminder that the LAFD has zero tolerance for the crime of arson,” LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas said Tuesday.

No information was released about potential motive for the fire, but investigators said they collected “electronic and physical evidence connecting Abdulwali to the crime.”

“Our agencies spent thousands of hours processing the scene, running down leads, interviewing potential witnesses and performing numerous other investigative activities leading to Abdulwali’s arrest,” said Carlos A. Canino, special agent in charge of the ATF’s Los Angeles field office. “This investigation was a team effort from start to finish, which makes its resolution all the more gratifying.”

— City News Service

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