From the start, the investigation looked suspicious.
On July 16, 2007, a fire spread quickly through a two-story strip mall, a block of stores in an Asian neighborhood of Alhambra. The footage on CNN showed towering 50-foot flames shooting toward the sky as a geyser of thick smoke all but blotted out the morning sun.
The owner of a nearby dry cleaner first saw smoke spewing out of the picture-framing shop on the western edge of the strip mall near Valley Boulevard and Ninth Street. After checking his own store for fire, he ran to a neighboring dry cleaner to warn the owner. Together, they watched smoke pour from the frame shop, dialing 911 at 8:52 a.m.
Three hours later, as firefighters finished dousing the flames, the buildings were rubble.
Before the embers were even cold, Assistant Fire Chief John Kabala held a press conference for the swarm of TV reporters covering the giant blaze. He announced that it was an electrical fire that began in the attic above the Happy Bakery — the store on the eastern edge of the strip mall, on the opposite end from the frame shop. Arson, Kabala declared, had been ruled out.
At the time Kabala said this, no one at the Alhambra Fire Department had bothered to investigate — or even look — inside the frame shop.
Late that night, the Alhambra Fire Department received a tip that the owner of the frame store, Charlie Lee, was missing. The next morning, roughly 20 hours after declaring it an electrical fire, Kabala returned to the scene. With him was Ken Toh, a veteran fire protection specialist and the only person at the Alhambra Fire Department able to speak Mandarin and Cantonese. Toh, who was born in Malaysia and has a master's degree in electrical engineering, was there to help translate interviews with the mostly Chinese witnesses and nearby shop owners, many of whom speak little or no English.
The frame store's large scissor-door security gate was locked from the inside, tied shut with a piece of wire at the top. Nearby business owners told Toh that owner Lee never locked it. Investigators forced open the metal gate.
When Kabala walked in, he spotted the charred remains of a body. It was Lee's.
The first words out of Kabala's mouth, according to Toh, were, "Shit, shit, shit."
Oddly, Lee was wearing only a shirt and no pants, and his body lay on the floor near his cellphone, although there was no record that Lee had called for help.
The next day, Toh and Alhambra city code enforcement officer Mike Hatzbanian discovered a surveillance camera at a nearby dry cleaner that was pointed toward the rear of Lee's frame shop. The eerie video showed Lee moving items — frames, artwork, documents — from his store into a warehouse in his back lot from 4 a.m. until shortly before smoke began billowing from his store. Toh says at one point it looked as though Lee carried a gas can into the shop. A gas can was later found in the frame shop. After Lee entered his store a final time, he never reappeared on the tape.
Toh soon learned, by talking with fellow non–English speakers who knew Lee, that Lee may have been behind on his rent and possibly in debt. He began following a rumor that Lee and his wife were having problems. He knew that among Chinese businessmen, it was not unheard of to burn their shop down — as a way to save face if the business is failing.
Toh immediately called Kabala to let his boss know that he had found potentially key evidence in the investigation.
"Kabala told me, 'The cause of the fire and origin has been determined, period, unless someone shows up at the fire department with a gas can admitting he or she started it,' " Toh tells L.A. Weekly.
For several days, Toh pressed on, talking to Chinese shop owners — as only he, of all the employees of the Alhambra Fire Department, could. He challenged his boss Kabala to at least consider the evidence he'd stumbled upon. Toh had known Lee and frequently shopped at the strip mall. He was determined that Lee's death — the death of an Asian community member — would be investigated thoroughly.
Instead of thanking Toh, however, the Alhambra Fire Department turned on him with all its powers of government. Over the course of eight months in 2007 and '08, according to Toh's criminal defense attorney, Jonathan Mandel, Alhambra fire investigators launched an unprecedented citywide witch hunt against Toh, conducting 55 witness interviews, serving 11 search warrants and creating an exhaustive 82-page investigative report — far more effort than they put into investigating the massive fire or Charlie Lee's death.
In March 2008, Fire Chief Vince Kemp fired Toh, although Toh believes Kabala actually made the decision to terminate him. A month later, District Attorney Steve Cooley's office charged Toh with interfering in an investigation, a criminal misdemeanor. Toh would soon face trial.