With four or five massive arson incidents involving new apartment construction in Oakland, CA recently, I’m reminded of the most spectacular structure (as opposed to brush) fire in recent Los Angeles history. On December 8, 2014, up in flames went the half-finished Da Vinci apartment complex alongside the Hollywood and Harbor Freeways downtown, near the Cathedral and the Japanese robot from outer space high school.
The developer, who has erected a number of giant semi-luxury apartment complexes downtown, was unpopular with city officials, NGOs, and the media for not catering to “affordable housing” and building slightly cheesy Mediterranean-style buildings that appeal to Asians from Orange County. The city sued the victim for $20 million for damage to city property caused by the heat, eventually settling for a mere $400,000.
Anyway, in all the Affordable Housing maneuvering, the story of who, precisely, committed this spectacular arson and why pretty much got lost. I only found out this week that the arsonist had already been convicted. From the LA Weekly:
Why Did an Arsonist Target One of DTLA’s Most Reviled Buildings?
MONDAY, OCTOBER 31, 2016 AT 7:32 A.M. BY HILLEL ARON
Even before he gave $2 million to a pro–Donald Trump super PAC, Geoffrey H. Palmer was among the most hated developers in Los Angeles.
The people may have forgiven him for accidentally demolishing the last of the 1880s Queen Anne Victorian houses from Bunker Hill (his lawyers said it was an accident); they may have forgiven him for successfully suing to overturn a state law forcing new apartment buildings to provide below-market affordable housing. But forgive him his architecture, they could not.
Though he owns a number of anonymous-looking apartment buildings throughout Southern California, Palmer is best known for his Renaissance Collection, a chain of a dozen or so nearly identical compounds built on the periphery of downtown Los Angeles. Their faux-Mediterranean aesthetic strikes many as cheap, out-of-place, something better suited for Orange County, while the concrete façades of their ground floors deaden the adjacent streets. …
As for a motive, investigators initially focused on Geoff Palmer.
“There’s a lot of people in L.A. that do not like his architectural style,” LAPD Detective Peter Lee says. “It’s not really L.A.-looking, it’s more Mediterranean. There’s a lot of hate.”
… The day after the Da Vinci burned down, commenters on the website Curbed L.A., a local real estate blog that has dubbed Palmer “the worst developer in downtown L.A.,” were positively giddy. “Karmic justice,” one called it. “An act of God — even he couldn’t stand what Palmer is doing to L.A.,” another wrote.
Another comment simply read: “One down….”
But it soon became clear that the man suspected of burning the building knew nothing of Palmer, and that if he did set the fire, it was inspired — perhaps vaguely — by the fatal police shooting of the unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
As one official quipped, “There are probably a million people who wanted to burn down that developer’s building. He just wasn’t one of them.”
It turned out that the arsonist was Dawud Abdulwali, formerly Timothy Roston, an African American career criminal / club promotion operator who picked up his Arab name when he converted to Islam in prison. (I wouldn’t be surprised if he is part Japanese, like L.A. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. Abdulwali had a wife from Japan and seems to have had some kind of yakuza drug smuggling ties.)
There was video footage of his car, his license plate showed up on many devices around downtown that record plates, and his cell phone pinged off towers at the scene of the crime at the moment the fire started. In general, the technology these days makes it hard to get away with crimes.
One of the first things investigators did after identifying Abdulwali as a suspect was to send him a friend request on Facebook, which Abdulwali accepted. …
But other posts revealed that he had a political side. On Nov. 25, 2014, he posted a number of photos from a protest in downtown L.A., near USC, following the decision of a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, to not file charges against Darren Wilson, the police officer who’d shot Michael Brown, a black, unarmed teenager.
One photo depicts Abdulwali wearing a blue tracksuit, holding a large yellow sign with bright red letters reading, “Stop killer cops!”
Other posts proved more incriminating. On Dec. 9, a friend posted a photo of the Da Vinci, engulfed in flames.
“Maybe we oughta worry about who set the fire,” someone commented.
“Or why they set the fire!” Abdulwali responded.
Abdulwali then shared the photo, writing above, “Things are only gonna get worse!!!”
On Dec. 23, he posted the following rant:
“I wonder how many crooked cops (f***ing pigs) have to be slaughtered or how many buildings have to be burned to the ground before the DA of the U.S. gets it right. Another pig gets a pass from the DA’s office for shooting a mentally challenged black man over a dozen times and killing him. Of course the pigs feared for — I am sorry, of course the pig feared for his life and claimed self-defense. Smh.”
Friends and acquaintances of Abdulwali lent credence to the theory that he’d set the fire as an act of political protest. Popaul Tshimanga recalled — first to police, and then to the court during Abdulwali’s preliminary hearing — being at a party with Abdulwali the week after the fire.
It was a small affair, Tshimanga said, in a room at the Hollywood Holiday Inn. There was a jacuzzi in the room, and a few girls, maybe seven people in total. They were drinking, smoking weed, snorting cocaine, and the conversation turned to the Michael Brown killing.
“He was mad about it,” Tshimanga told the court. “He didn’t like the way the cops was killing black people.” Then, Tshimanga recalled, Abdulwali said “he burned a building.” …
“Yeah,” said Tshimanga, who lives in San Francisco. “103 or 105 or something like that. 110. Like in the freeway.”
The 110 is the Harbor Freeway next to the Da Vinci.
So this huge arson incident appears to be BLM-related terrorism. But BLM terrorism isn’t really a conceptual category that we are encouraged to possess.
So the bad news is that political arson seems to have become a Thing in America recently. The good news is that we have so much surveillance technology these days that it’s hard for anybody to get away with it often.