Alhambra Arson Foul Play?
Ken Toh and Mike Hatzbanian found security tapes of the dead man entering the building. The Alhambra Fire Department said it wasn't interested.
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.
Secret recordings of Toh's conversations and witness intimidation were among the tactics Kabala's investigators allegedly tried to use to find evidence against Toh. "I had nothing to hide, so there was nothing they could have found," Toh says.
Alhambra fire officials and Cooley's office sought to prove that Toh had colluded with the owner of the destroyed strip mall, Peter Fong — a friend of Toh's — to help Fong avoid civil liability for the blaze if it had really started due to an electrical problem such as bad wiring. If Fong could use Toh to persuade the fire department that it was arson, the DA and fire officials later argued in court, Fong could get off the hook for civil lawsuits.
At Toh's six-week criminal trial in November and December 2009, defense attorney Mandel painted an unflattering picture of Kabala — of a man too proud to admit that he may have made a mistake by declaring the fire's cause and origin under the pressure of national TV cameras just hours after the blaze, and the day before Lee's body was discovered. Kabala, two and a half years away from retirement, was working a side job doing consulting and training investigators at a private company. Mandel argued Kabala was afraid that public embarrassment could jeopardize his future with the company.
Nearly two and a half years after the fire, the jury took less than an hour of deliberation to side with Toh.
He wasn't guilty, but the persecution by Kabala and others had badly smeared Toh's professional reputation.
"They destroyed his career," says Toh's friend Dan Van Dorpe, who owns a local engineering company and worked with Toh on and off for 15 years, offering Toh the odd side job from time to time. "I don't think he'll ever get to work for another fire department."
Toh today can't get a job. He says he had no choice but to sue the City of Alhambra in federal court for violating his civil rights. Though baffled for a long time, Toh came to believe he was targeted by fire officials whose upper ranks included no Chinese-Americans — in a Los Angeles suburb that is 50 percent Asian.
Now, current and former Alhambra city employees have begun swearing under oath that top Alhambra officials, including City Manager Julio Fuentes, were involved in suppressing or destroying evidence in controversial fires. They point to the troubling Olive Avenue fire, in which a man died.
"Something is very wrong in Alhambra," Toh says.
For 15 years as an Alhambra fire inspection specialist, Toh kept his head down and his nose clean. With a mild-mannered, almost meek personality, Toh did what was asked of him. He was a top-notch pro who never received a workplace reprimand.
Toh's neighbors and friends say he was active in the Chinese community and generous with his time, driving them to the airport at the last minute or spending his weekend fixing someone's leaky roof.
"He was always trying to help someone," says Toh's longtime neighbor, Steve Kuan, who works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. "He is a good friend and very devoted to his homeland."
Yet Toh says he had plenty to grumble about over the years, had he been a complainer. As only one of two Asians in the fire department — the other being Vietnamese — Toh never felt at ease among the mostly white and Hispanic firefighters, and says he was often the butt of their jokes.
"I felt ostracized for 15 years," Toh says. "They called me 'Broken Toe,' because of my last name, but in China it's very insulting to call someone 'broken,' and I was very offended, but there was nothing I could do. They would come and chat with me only when they needed something from me. My relationship with Kabala was always good because of that. He needed me because I did all of his work. I did his inspections and I helped him train other inspectors."
Toh's colleague, Mike Hatzbanian, says Kabala was not friendly toward Asians.
"Kabala made fun of the way Ken talks," Hatzbanian says, "and he called all Asians 'Chinamen.' He never called them 'Asian.' He said the Chinese must be crooked because they have so much money and [he] acted jealous that they were new to this country and had more than he did."
Traci Park, attorney for the now-retired Kabala, declined to comment on Kabala's behalf.
Despite feeling like an outcast, Toh enjoyed his job in Alhambra and relished his role as the primary link between the Asian community and the fire department. In 2002, Toh turned down a job offer from the City of Pasadena, which tried to lure him away with a $15,000 raise.
On the day of the strip mall fire, Toh was asked to help translate interviews and work with a crush of local Asian media at the scene. By the third day, after Lee's body was discovered and Kabala had expressed little interest in the security tape showing Lee moving his belongings out of his frame store hours before the fire, Toh decided to break out of his shell and stand up.
On that day, July 19, 2007, Toh and his colleague, Fire Prevention Specialist Shari Miller, met with Kabala in Kabala's office. When Kabala told Toh he was not going to change his hasty announcement of the cause and origin of the strip mall fire, Toh says he began to get upset, telling Kabala that the investigation looked shoddy.
"Mr. Lee was from Taiwan and everyone involved in the fire was Asian," Toh says. "The fire department didn't have anyone to communicate with them, so I am the chosen one to talk to the community. After I presented the information to Kabala on several occasions, nothing was being done. I thought, 'This is not being done right.' "
Later, at Toh's criminal trial, Kabala said he told Toh on July 19 to stop investigating, but that Toh refused and did not cease until Kabala ordered him to stop probing the fire several days later.
Toh's attorney was able to show significant flaws with the fire department's investigation, aided by the testimony of Tom Fee, the former Pomona fire chief and past president of both the California Conference of Arson Investigators and the International Association of Arson Investigators.
Deputy District Attorney Jose Gonzalez, who prosecuted Toh, says, "I believed in the case, but the jury spoke and they felt otherwise."
Cooley's team was beat soundly in front of the jury. Fee reviewed two-dozen official reports related to the fire, including the City of Alhambra's exhaustive criminal investigation into Toh, Lee's autopsy file and the probe into the cause of the fire. Fee found a laundry list of troubling items and bizarre departures from fire investigation best practices.
For starters, Fee said, the fire department did a poor job investigating the scene: Kabala held a press conference announcing the cause and origin of the fire to the TV networks, yet hadn't looked over the blackened shops well enough to spot Lee's body sprawled on a floor.
"It [the frame shop] was not processed by the investigators during their initial investigation; proper protocol was not followed," Fee wrote.
Next, Fee said, investigators are required by protocol to examine suspected appliances or sources of an electrical fire, rule each one out, and "make sure that arson or suicide was not an element of this incident." Incredibly, Fee found, "Nothing in the reports indicated that this was done."
And Fee pointed to Lee's autopsy report, which found that although there were hot gases in Lee's lungs, there was no soot in his airways, meaning he most likely did not die from smoke inhalation — the mark of somebody trapped who must involuntarily suck smoke into his lungs. According to the pathologist's report, there were no signs of trauma; Lee had pulmonary edema, possibly due to the inhalation of hot gases. No one ever determined why Lee wasn't wearing pants. Fee stated that Lee's death was more conducive to a "flash fire" in the frame shop than the fire department's conclusion that the blaze started several stores away in the Happy Bakery.
"In reading the reports and witness statements," Fee wrote, "I found numerous things that would cause suspicion and need to be eliminated and explained away before completion of the investigation."
All but destroying the Alhambra Fire Department's massive probe and allegations against Toh, Fee concluded, "I did not find anything that I would say interfered with the outcome of the investigation. To the contrary, Mr. Toh provided many valuable witness statements and located and obtained the videotape from the adjacent business. The videotape would be very valuable to this investigation. ... The video should have been made part of the record of this investigation at some point because of its content."
The trial further hurt Kabala when Toh's colleague, Shari Miller, took the witness stand and contradicted Kabala, who claimed to have ordered Toh to stand down three days after the fire and that Toh had disobeyed — a key reason Alhambra city officials used to launch their huge probe of Toh. But Miller testified that Kabala did not tell Toh to stop investigating three days after the fire.
"Shari Miller, who still has to work with these people at the fire department, testified at great risk that that did not happen," Mandel later told the Weekly. "She was like a white knight."
Citing fire department rules, Miller declined to comment.
Toh says that when Kabala finally did tell him to stop, on July 23, he obeyed. "Witnesses of the fire would call me and I told them that I couldn't help," Toh says. "They would say, 'How come no one has come out to interview us yet?' And I had to say, 'I don't know, I can't do anything now.' "
What was behind Kabala's behavior? The theory Mandel presented to the jury was that Kabala was afraid his budding side career with a forensic investigative firm would be jeopardized if he publicly admitted to an error in a prominent fire that made the news.
"Can you imagine," Mandel says, "the biggest case of Kabala's career, he's on TV making a hasty announcement, and it gets out that he fucked up? Our theory was that he was now trying to cover it up."
When Kabala took the witness stand, he claimed he was not trying to cover anything up, but admitted that he rushed his public announcement "because when you're dealing with the media ... they want information as quickly as possible."
But Toh has developed an alternate theory: Kabala went after him because he's Chinese.
"If I was Caucasian," Toh says, "this never would have happened. After I spoke up, the fire department thought I would not be loyal to the fire department anymore and would only be loyal to the Chinese community."
As Toh's civil attorney, Jim Urbanic, puts it, "Ken stood up and said, 'You need to start giving the Asian community more attention and respect. You can't just sweep this under the rug and not investigate,' and they didn't like that one bit. It wasn't like he was destroying or altering evidence — he was simply gathering evidence and giving it to the fire department.
"What if Ken had not spoken to people after the fire? What if he saw the surveillance tape and didn't tell anyone? Would they have fired him for not disclosing what he'd seen? Why wasn't Ken lauded as a hero as opposed to being treated as a criminal?"
Toh couldn't have imagined it at the time, but he eventually would be seen as a hero by many in the city of Alhambra.
Alhambra code inspector Mike Hatzbanian was with Toh when they discovered the surveillance tape of Lee two days after the fire. He was there when Toh was told that the tape wasn't needed for the investigation.
Hatzbanian was appalled.
Five days later, says Hatzbanian, whose code inspection beat included the strip mall, he was talking with the owner of a gas station across the street from the burnt buildings. The owner had his own security camera pointed at the destroyed stores and played it for Hatzbanian. It showed smoke coming from the shops, and was stamped with the date and time.
"If I were an investigator," Hatzbanian says, "I would think this could be very important. I'd at least gather it and then get rid of it later if you don't need it. But the fire department was not interested. I told them about it, and they told me to mind my own business."
Hatzbanian was terminated from his job in August 2008. He believes he was fired because he did not help Kabala and the fire department persecute Toh.
"They were trying to find anything on Ken," Hatzbanian says, "and they wanted me to say that Ken was guilty of interfering so they could nail him. They went after me because I didn't 'play ball.' "
About a month after the fire, Hatzbanian says, fire department investigators walked him down to the basement of the Alhambra police department to interrogate him about Toh.
"I told them everything I knew," Hatzbanian says, "and they told me I was lying. They told me that they would put me in jail and that I would never see my daughter again or get another government job ever again. They were very threatening."
City investigators had Hatzbanian take a polygraph test. At one point, he says, a fire department investigator asked him to either wear a wire or record a phone conversation with Toh without Toh's knowledge.
Nervous, Hatzbanian agreed, but only if the Alhambra Fire Department would assure him in writing that he could not get sued for recording a conversation with Toh.
"They left me in the interrogating room and returned a few minutes later and said they couldn't do that," Hatzbanian says. "So I said, 'I can't wear a wire.' There was no mention of a warrant or the legality of any of it."
Under California law, according to the L.A. County Public Defender's Office, it is legal for law enforcement to record telephone or in-person conversations without the other individual's knowledge. Authorization from a judge or the District Attorney's Office is not required.
In September 2007, Hatzbanian was placed on paid administrative leave, accused of numerous petty offenses including accepting a free lunch from Peter Fong — the strip mall owner with whom Toh was accused of colluding — and discussing the fire with Toh. Hatzbanian also was accused of not telling his supervisor his whereabouts during the fire. He was told to sit by the phone at home and wait for the city to inform him of his upcoming discipline.
Hatzbanian sat by the phone for 11 months, collecting pay the entire time, until he was finally fired.
Urbanic, Hatzbanian's attorney, says the city has no proof that Hatzbanian accepted free meals from Fong. Hatzbanian admits that he, along with other city workers, attended a lunch with Fong at a Chinese restaurant, but says he did not eat because he is allergic to MSG.
Urbanic says there is no law prohibiting two city workers from discussing a fire while off-duty, and Hatzbanian's supervisor at the time, code enforcement division manager Vince Bisognio, has said that Hatzbanian's whereabouts were not in question the day of the fire.
"His termination was a smoke screen," Urbanic says. "He was really fired because of his association with Ken and because he complained about not wanting to wear a wire. He didn't help them get Ken."
Since Hatzbanian filed his wrongful termination lawsuit in July 2009, several Alhambra city workers have given sworn depositions. Among them is his former manager, Bisognio, who confirmed that he knew where Hatzbanian was during the fire.
But Bisognio, under oath, also cited a troubling parallel between the city's antics involving the strip mall blaze and city officials' behavior following a fire that hit the 200 block of North Olive Avenue 10 years ago.
Bisognio says a garage there had been illegally converted into an apartment that was not up to code and violated Alhambra's health and safety standards. He says his division notified the landowner and the Alhambra Building Division that the garage required code corrections, but the building department never followed up.
Then, at about 5 a.m. one day in October 2001, the fire department got a 911 call. Sparked by a hot plate or toaster, a fire had torched the garage. By the time firefighters arrived, the resident of the garage, 55-year-old Bruce Dalton, was dead.
Bisognio says he typed a memo on his computer telling Mary Chavez, then the assistant to the city manager, that the building department had failed in its obligation to make sure the garage had been fixed, and as a result a fire killed a man.
Bisognio says he was called into a meeting with Chavez and Chavez's boss, City Manager Julio Fuentes. After the meeting, he says, Chavez instructed Bisognio to delete his memo. He refused.
According to Bisognio, Chavez then asked him for his password, entered his computer and erased the memo, saying, "I have been ordered to remove that file from your computer."
Bisognio was never told why but says, "I knew something was wrong, obviously."
Hatzbanian, along with Alhambra code enforcement officer Monica Harvey, also mentioned the Olive Avenue fire during their depositions, Urbanic says.
"Were they trying to hide the info so no one could sue them?" Hatzbanian says.
Alhambra Mayor Gary Yamauchi says he has no recollection of the cover-up allegations regarding Dalton's death.
Urbanic says he is stunned that Bisognio's deposition about how Dalton died has been ignored by Alhambra's elected leaders and top management. "Given that it was sworn testimony by a longtime manager with the City of Alhambra, an independent investigation should have been initiated. Instead, we got snickers and eye-rolling from the city's counsel. It's very troubling, to say the least."
Traci Park, attorney for Alhambra, says, "The city is not going to comment on ridiculous allegations that are more than a decade old."
To Urbanic, however, the similarities between the two fires are chilling.
"Mr. Lee died and the city doesn't want to look at it," he says. "The correlation between that fire and the way they're handling Lee's death is similar to the city's bungling of the Olive fire."
Hatzbanian is currently unemployed, though he is optimistic about his wrongful-termination lawsuit. He says he's already turned down several offers to settle. What he will never get over, however, is the way he felt when asked to wear a wire and help destroy Toh.
"It made me feel like shit," he says. "Ken is my friend. We didn't do anything wrong and were only trying to help."
It's lunchtime one recent day at the Capital Seafood Restaurant near Alhambra, and Toh is the king of the dim sum palace. As he sits at his table with his defense attorney, Mandel, talking about how the fire department tried to screw him over in court, Toh is constantly distracted as well-wishers walk up to him to shake his hand.
At one point, Toh gets up from the table to talk to some friends across the room. Then he disappears. When Mandel is ready to leave, he finds Toh sitting in a secluded side room, visiting with a dining table full of Chinese community leaders.
Toh may be persona non grata within the city halls of Alhambra, but he is embraced in its streets.
During Toh's trial, 20 to 30 supporters from Alhambra's Asian community showed up every day to cheer him on, a scene that culminated in a triumphant roar when Toh was acquitted.
"Ken was trying to do the right thing and find out what happened to the victim," says William Ha, who serves on the Los Angeles County Commission for Older Adults and attended part of Toh's trial. "I have more respect for him than ever."
Siong Yap, vice president of the Southern California Fukinese Association, which is made up of people who, like Toh, trace their heritage to the Fukien Province in China, says that once Toh was found innocent in court, it was hard to ignore the racial issue inside the Alhambra Fire Department.
"This bias is hard to prove," Yap says, "but what else can you draw? He didn't do anything criminally wrong. Based on all the evidence, it's very obvious, but even if it's not racially motivated, it looks like the city is trying to cover something up."
This in turn helped bolster Toh's image among the Asian community, Yap says.
"He didn't do it to be a hero," Yap says. "He did it out of a sense of justice and to fight for his honor and dignity. And that's how the community sees it. He stood up, so for that fact he deserves recognition and respect. People think that's heroic."
While Toh seems to enjoy his celebrity status, it's not all smiles. He says he's suffered for years. Depressed, Toh has stopped many of his usual activities, such as playing tennis with his family, and has no clue who will hire him again.
"I love the people in Alhambra," he says, "but I fear I may have to go somewhere else. But even then, I'm still not going to get a job because of what happened to me."
Toh's friend, Dan Van Dorpe, says when Toh found himself suddenly out of work, he tried to hire Toh to work for his engineering firm, but it wasn't that easy.
Van Dorpe says he received a call from the Monterey Park Fire Department, which was looking to hire a company to review fire sprinkler plans.
"But when I told them that most of my work would be done by Ken Toh," says Van Dorpe, "they said, 'Well, we don't want to get in the middle of that, goodbye.' There's not a lot of work in the private sector for fire protection engineers, so no matter what, I'd imagine whatever he does, he'll earn a lot less."
Toh is pleased he was not convicted, but not much has changed since the fire that changed his life. Charlie Lee's death was never seriously investigated beyond the initial stages, he says, and the cause of the deadly blaze is still officially ruled as "electrical." And it appears that no one will be looking into the allegations about the fire that killed Bruce Dalton 10 years ago on Olive Avenue.
As Toh has said, something seems "very wrong" in Alhambra.
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