A homeless man was arrested and charged with arson for starting a tiny blaze in August near the spot where a gigantic wildfire erupted several days later, killing two firefighters, homicide detectives said Monday.
Babatunsin Olukunle, 25, is the strongest lead to date in the arson investigation stemming from a fire that destroyed 89 homes, burned 250 square miles of national forest and killed two firefighters when their truck plunged off a road. It was one of the largest fires in Southern California history.
The Nigerian man was arrested Thursday and charged Monday with one felony count of recklessly causing a fire. Authorities said he started a fire that charred an area about the size of a table top on Aug. 20 and was quickly extinguished by two U.S. Forest Service workers who happened to be passing and spotted smoke.
The small fire burned off the side of the Angeles Crest Highway, a mountain road northeast of Los Angeles. Six days later and six miles down the same road, the devastating Station Fire broke out.
Authorities stopped short of calling Olukunle a suspect in the fire, though Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Lt. Liam Gallagher said he was the “best lead.”
“I can’t put him as a suspect, we don’t have enough evidence at this time,” Gallagher said.
Olukunle pleaded not guilty at his arraignment Monday and remained jailed on $100,000 bond. The district attorney’s office did not immediately know the name of his public defender. Olukunle is due back in Pasadena Superior Court on Nov. 19.
His brother Ayodeshi Olukunle told KCAL-TV he believed investigators were trying to frame Babatunsin Olukunle.
“He got scared and he ran away and all of a sudden, because he was seen in the area and there was a fire that happened and because two firefighters died, you just want to frame somebody for it? That’s just not fair,” the brother said from his South Los Angeles home.
Stan Goldman, a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said it appeared the homicide detectives investigating the Station Fire considered Olukunle to be a person of interest in that blaze.
“Why would homicide be interested in investigating someone for starting a fire in which no one died,” Goldman said. “There is no point in them going out to arrest someone unless they think he is involved in a homicide.”
The two Forest Service workers who put out the small blaze saw Olukunle walking into the forest and away from the fire. He was a familiar sight to users of the road and had been seen pushing a cart filled with recyclables up the steep road.
He was arrested in Lancaster when two patrol deputies spotted him walking down a street carrying a bag of aluminum cans.
Olukunle, who dropped out of the University of California, Davis, in 2004, told detectives he’d been sleeping in the mountains.
“He seems rational, understands everything,” Gallagher said. “He’s quite articulate and appears smart, he just has gone to a different lifestyle.”
Detectives questioned Olukunle about the Station Fire but Gallagher said he would not give any details about what was discussed.
His family emigrated from Nigeria in 1999.
Ayodeshi Olukunle said his brother left home after suffering a mental breakdown.
“Nobody leaves a comfortable home, a bed, just to go to sleep in the street,” he said. “Nobody does that. It doesn’t make any sense.”