Why Did an Arsonist Target One of DTLA's Most Reviled Buildings?
The Da Vinci blaze looked like a column of fire threatening to swallow downtown L.A.
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.
The most recently opened building in Palmer's collection is the Da Vinci, an imposing L-shaped complex composed of two buildings connected by a pedestrian bridge, tucked into the corner where the 110 and 101 freeways converge.
On Dec. 7, 2014, Da Vinci's northern section was nearing completion, while its southern counterpart — sprawling nearly the length of three football fields — was still a wooden skeleton, waiting to be wrapped in insulation and stucco. Palmer's buildings are known for their fortresslike qualities, but the Da Vinci was uniquely vulnerable, protected only by a chain-link fence. Its proximity to the freeway made it easy for an intruder to slip in; its exposed wood made it highly combustible.
It started with a brief flash of light. For nearly two hours, the fire secretly smoldered. Hundreds of cars rushed by, their drivers unaware. By the time the security guard smelled the smoke, by the time firefighters and news cameras began to arrive at the scene at around 1:15 a.m., it was too late.
At that point, the fire spread astonishingly quickly, eating through the entire structure within a manner of hours. Seen from the Hollywood Hills, the Da Vinci blaze looked like a column of fire, something out of a Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic, threatening to swallow downtown L.A. with the wrath of the Almighty. It took nearly 400 firefighters to extinguish the inferno, which not only engulfed the entire southern structure but managed to melt a nearby aluminum sign on the freeway, singe trees and vegetation on the opposite side of the roadway and shatter the glass windows of a city-owned office building across the street.
By morning the Da Vinci had been reduced to ash, mangled metal and two blackened, ghostly staircases — the smoldering remains of the most expensive and memorable structure fire in recent L.A. history.
Ghostly staircases were among the smoldering remains of the most expensive and memorable structure fire in recent L.A. history.
"This is what we call a career fire," arson investigator Robert McLoud says. "This is a big one, one that everyone remembers."
It didn't take long for McLoud and other investigators from the LAPD and the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to determine that the Da Vinci fire was the work of an arsonist. It would be months, however, before they zeroed in on a suspect.
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."
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."
In 2010, NBC's local news affiliate ran a story about large, foreclosed homes being taken over by squatters.
"In this upscale enclave in the San Fernando Valley, there's a new neighbor on the block," reporter Joel Grover intoned dramatically. "He drives a big Mercedes, sometimes a fancy SUV, and residents say he's been living in a three-story mansion, which was empty and going into foreclosure."
The man was Dawud Abdulwali — or, as Grover identified him, Dawud Walli. Neighbors said he had moved into the house more than a year earlier, had furnished it, covered the windows in garbage bags and turned it into a "party house."
When asked on camera if he was renting the house, an indignant Abdulwali replied, "No, that's none of your business." When asked if he was squatting, he replied: "Yeah, me and your mom!"
Eventually, neighbors got the cops to change the locks and post "No Trespassing" signs, and NBC filmed Abdulwali moving out (he wasn't arrested for the incident). One shot showed him carrying a Dreamgirls movie poster out of the house.
"Why not explain why you're in that house illegally?" an NBC producer asked.
"Because I don't have to," Abdulwali said. "That's why."
Dawud Abulwali in court
Courtesy of KTLA
The 3½-minute segment seems to capture the enigmatic Abdulwali in all his contradictions. He was at turns convivial and defiant, penniless but by outward appearances quite wealthy, a partier and a bit of a nomad.
He has been known as Dawud Wali, Dawud Walli, Dawud Abdul-Wali and Abdul-wali Dawud, according to his Facebook page. An old friend who's known him for more than 20 years (and who asked that we not print her name, for fear of retribution) says she and others always called him Abdul.
He was born Timothy Roston, and police believe he changed his name and converted to Islam during one of his stints in prison.
In recent years, Abdulwali had lived rather modestly. He drove a decommissioned, unlicensed taxi, picking up fares as a bandit cab driver. In fact, Abdulwali owned several cabs, one of which bore the logo for "D-Tourz," a company he started to take tourists to nightclubs.
"He was always in the club-promotion business," LAPD's Lee says. "He wanted to have his own cab company and take people from party to party." At one point, Abdulwali even had a D-Tourz storefront. But, Lee says, the venture never became all that profitable.
A few years back, Abdulwali lived in a house on 111th Street and rented out two rooms, to Edwin Gomez and his brother.
"We were really close," Gomez would later testify at a preliminary hearing. "I looked up to him a lot. ... He took me in when I was pretty much homeless, me and my brother. He fed me when I needed food. He always gave me rides to work. He always gave me money when I needed money. He wouldn't let me pay him half the rent sometimes when I wouldn't have the money. He would always take in animals from the street."
Photos Abdulwali has posted on Facebook, which go back decades, depict a far more opulent lifestyle than the one he displayed in recent years. They show him driving a Porsche and a Mercedes, flying first class, frequenting nightclubs and posing with Laurence Fishburne, Magic Johnson, Flavor Flav and Eric B.
"He partied, like, maybe three times a week," says the old friend. "Whenever a black club opened, he was there. He got bottles, he got girls. He liked to have people come over to his house, kind of in the Hollywood Hills."
Where did his money come from? One friend suggests it came from his wife, Fujiyo Ogata, a Japanese woman who married Abdulwali in 2001, months after he was released from an Arizona state prison. They divorced three years later. According to the terms of their marital settlement agreement, Ogata paid Abdulwali $10,000. She kept two of the couple's pet cockatiels; he kept the third.
Abdulwali has been arrested more than a dozen times since 1979 for crimes including grand theft auto, receiving stolen property, assault with a deadly weapon, robbery and a firearms violation. In 1994, when he was still Timothy Roston, he served 16 months in a California prison for fraudulent use of a credit card. In 1996, he served four years and five months in an Arizona state prison for fraud. Arizona prison records list him as Dawud Wali, the earliest instance he is identified by his new name.
In 2012, he was arrested and charged with beating and raping his ex-wife, according to court records (she is identified as A. Fujiyo, a "former spouse"). The charges were later dropped, according to LAPD's Lee, because Ogata didn't want to testify.
"They had a strong case, but she didn't want them to pursue it," Lee says.
Abdulwali was a frequent traveler to Japan, having flown there twice since the Da Vinci burned down. Police say he had a girlfriend living in Saipan, and he told them he was planning a permanent move there. Facebook photos show Abdulwali posing in front of a Shinkansen train, on the observation deck of the Tokyo Skytree and in Japanese nightclubs.
But the trips may have been as much about business as they were pleasure. As Lee said in a written declaration to the court, "I believe that the defendant is involved in international narcotics trafficking and money laundering."
In April 2005, according to Lee's declaration, U.S. Customs agents intercepted a FedEx package en route from Tokyo to Glendale. The sender was listed as Dawud Abdulwali; the recipient was Timothy Roston. The package contained a remote-controlled car. In the chassis of the car was $80,000 in cash.
According to Lee's declaration, Abdulwali "claimed he earned that money from selling clothing in Japan."
Weeks later, Abdulwali's girlfriend, Lisa Toscano, was arrested at Tokyo's Narita International Airport after officials there found 930 grams of methamphetamine strapped to her body. According to Lee's declaration, "Toscano admitted to transporting drugs for Abdulwali."
Nearly 10 years later, in January 2015 — less than two months after the Da Vinci burned down — Abdulwali's nephew, Marc Roston, was arrested at San Francisco International Airport. Roston, who was scheduled to fly to Tokyo, was discovered with nearly 900 grams of methamphetamine in his luggage and tucked inside the cuffs of his socks. Agents believed Roston also had swallowed some bags of meth. Abdulwali was in Japan at the time; he flew back to Los Angeles two days after his nephew's arrest. He himself was never arrested for drug trafficking.
"We heard rumors that he was transporting drugs for the yakuza," Lee says. "That was never proven. But that's what custom agents were looking at."
Homeland Security investigators detained Abdulwali after he returned to Los Angeles, following yet another trip to Japan, in March 2015. They interviewed him, seized his cellphone and laptop and then released him.
Two months later, on May 26, Abdulwali was sitting in the passenger seat of a 2008 white Chevy Silverado that was pulled over for a broken taillight, according to a search warrant later filed by Detective Lee. The two patrol police officers found that Abdulwali had two misdemeanor arrest warrants, for driving with a suspended license and for failing to appear in court. They placed him under arrest.
Arson investigator McLoud and Detective Lee met Abdulwali at the jail. When Lee read Abdulwali his Miranda rights, Abdulwali replied, according to the search warrant, "Yes, yes, yes, yes ... no. ... I want to have an attorney."
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.
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Another comment simply read: "One down...."
Some of Palmer's residents, it should be said, love living in his buildings, for both their amenities and their not unreasonable price point. A one-bedroom apartment at the Da Vinci starts at $2,125 a month (just over the city's median rent), though you'll pay more if you don't want your balcony overlooking the freeway.
And Palmer is hardly the only practitioner of faux-Mediterranean architecture.
"Faux-Mediterranean is a standard style and has been for about 30 years," says developer Mott Smith. "Stucco is a natural finish for that stuff. You can do the faux ornaments, the fleur-de-lis. It's cheap, and everyone loves it."
"You see it everywhere," says Austrian-born, L.A.-based architect Gerhard Mayer. "In our houses, people celebrate it. We're building houses that look like they would be from the south of Spain or from Italy, but we're building them with cheap sticks and then a fake, plastic coat.
"There is no architectural integrity in L.A. This is Disneyland. And Palmer fits right into that vein."
Though Palmer rarely gives interviews (and politely declined our requests for one), he had an email exchange with Los Angeles Magazine in 2014, before the fire, in which he expressed admiration for Italians.
"The Italians actually settled L.A. before the Spanish and Chinese," he wrote, in a curious bit of historical revisionism.
He was even more outspoken at a public event with Planning Report publisher David Abel, in October 2015. In one particularly Trump-esque moment, he told Abel: "Through the magic of depreciation, we haven't paid federal taxes for the last 30 years."
Asked about his feelings about a law that forced developers to build affordable housing, which he effectively overturned by suing the city, he said: "Why do these social engineers think that private individuals should be subsidizing these people? Where do they get these progressive ideas? It's totally un-American."
Many credit developer Tom Gilmore, who utilized the city's adaptive-reuse ordinance to turn historic buildings in the Old Bank District into mixed-use apartment buildings, with kick-starting downtown L.A.'s revitalization. Palmer's role, however, may be underappreciated.
"He really established that you could have market-rate rentals in downtown Los Angeles, at a point in time after the riots, when no one thought that was possible," Abel says. "He broke the narrative that downtown was dangerous and unlivable."
When Palmer presented his plans to build the Medici shortly before the turn of the millennium, everyone thought he was crazy. Only 27,000 people were living downtown. The 1992 riots were still fresh in people's minds. There was no Old Bank District, no Disney Hall, no Grand Park, no Bottega Louie. At night, the streets were almost entirely devoid of human life.
"No one believed he was actually gonna build it," says Palmer's land-use lawyer, Ben Reznik. "When we said we were going to build market-rate housing, it was quite out of the box, really. But Geoff believed in it."
Tom Gilmore's buildings had off-site parking; they had retail space on the ground floor, and residents got a discount to join the Los Angeles Athletic Club. His tenants were, in effect, encouraged to be part of the neighborhood, to walk around.
Palmer's residents, meanwhile, were shielded from the street. You could barely even find the building's front door. The Medici was designed to be driven into, and to repel pedestrians and, crucially, the homeless, with its steep, two-story brick walls. Inside, it brimmed with amenities — a swimming pool, a gym, BBQ pits and outdoor common areas that especially appealed to students at nearby USC.
If Gilmore was building a neighborhood, Palmer was building castles.
"His buildings say, the people around here are not welcome in this community," says Renee Dake Wilson, an architect and vice president of the city's Planning Commission. "Residents don't have to go out into the street, ever."
Once his model proved to be a successful one, Palmer saw no need to alter it. He has replicated the Medici again and again, with the Orsini, the Piero, the Visconti and the Lorenzo, all multibuilding complexes with the same faux-Italian aesthetic, built within spitting distance of the 110 — despite the fact that studies have shown living within 500 feet of a freeway increases one's risk of heart disease.
His is a vertically integrated operation: G.H. Palmer Associates has its own management and its construction divisions, always working on the next project.
The amenities have grown. The Da Vinci boasts a full-size basketball court, a plush screening room, a bonfire pit, a putting green, shared office space, saunas, steam rooms and no fewer than three swimming pools. Some of Palmer's newer buildings even offer a smattering of street-level retail space. But the character of the buildings remains the same — imposing, inward-facing, standoffish.
"He's gone on and on, as if nothing has changed," Abel says. "He has these fortress projects, on the argument that it's dangerous out on the street. And it isn't dangerous on the street."
The trail that led authorities to Abdulwali began with a security camera on the side of a Bank of America data processing center, on the opposite side of the freeway from the Da Vinci. The khaki-colored building is owned by Palmer, who plans to tear it down and build his biggest project yet — the Ferrante, a mixed-use behemoth with 30,000 square feet of commercial space and 1,500 rental units (nearly three times as many as the Da Vinci).
The camera had been pointed down at the Da Vinci, monitoring its construction. But it perfectly captured a Ford Crown Victoria sedan as it pulled over to the right-hand shoulder of the 110 north on Dec. 7, 2014, at 10:57 p.m. The body of the car was white, the top painted dark, in the style of a taxicab.
The driver got out of the car, ducked underneath a break in a chain-link fence, scurried down a short embankment and crawled through the metal scaffolding and into the massive wooden frame of what would soon be the Da Vinci, which at points is so close to the freeway that a passing driver could almost reach out and touch it.
Minutes later, the video shows the Crown Victoria pulling away, only to return at 11:19 p.m. The driver gets out of the car and goes to the trunk, opens it, takes out something — the video is too grainy to tell what. Again, the driver crawls through the fence and into the wooden structure.
About four minutes later, a flash of light appears inside the complex, as if a light in one of the unfinished bedrooms has been turned on. Investigators say this was a flash fire — the sudden ignition of flame and some sort of accelerant, either gasoline or lighter fluid.
The driver calmly exits the building, gets into his car and pulls away.
Little was left of the Da Vinci after the December 2014 fire.
After seeing the video, investigators consulted the Automated License Plate Reader database. There are hundreds of Automated License Plate Readers all over the city, on top of police cars and on street posts. The infrared cameras can capture images of vehicles driving up to 100 miles per hour, day or night.
Investigators were able to search the database for any Ford Crown Victorias driving in the general vicinity of the Da Vinci that night. They found one, a decommissioned taxicab with a license plate registered to Dawud Abdulwali, who'd bought the car in July 2014 for $500.
Later, investigators would find that Abdulwali's cellphone was intermittently pinging off of cell towers near the Da Vinci, at 11:04, 11:19, 11:32 and 11:33 p.m.
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. Most of his posts were photos of him posing with women or with friends. There were also a number of photos of flowers.
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 (fucking 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."
"He said he burned a building?" asked the prosecutor.
"Did he tell you what building?"
"Was he specific about the location?"
"Yeah," said Tshimanga, who lives in San Francisco. "103 or 105 or something like that. 110. Like in the freeway."
Edwin Gomez, Abdulwali's former roommate, also told police that Abdulwali was angry over the events at Ferguson, and that before the fire he said to Gomez, "We should go burn some shit down." (That statement by Gomez, made to the LAPD, was recorded and played during the preliminary hearing; Gomez claimed that police were recording the conversation without his knowledge. Lee denies this.)
"I know he wasn't serious," Gomez insisted in court. "And people get angry over little things every day, and we all say things out loud that we don't mean."
In February, the city of Los Angeles filed a lawsuit against Geoff Palmer over the Da Vinci fire, which had not only damaged a city-owned office tower and a freeway sign but also stretched fire department resources nearly to the breaking point. Though insurance covered $61 million of the cost, the city says it's trying to recover the remaining $20 million of its expenses.
The suit alleges that Palmer "allowed the creation of a fire hazard at the Da Vinci Apartments" with his crew's "improper and defective construction methods" that failed "to comply with industry standards for fire safety and prevention." It argues the Da Vinci was "more susceptible than normal to becoming swiftly engulfed in flames without appropriate fire-prevention measures."
Though the Da Vinci's sprinkler system was installed at the time of the fire, it wasn't hooked up to the water supply; that was scheduled to happen sometime in the week after the fire, according to Robert McLoud, the arson investigator. It also was soon to be wrapped in stucco, which would have prevented the flames from spreading so quickly.
As it was, the Da Vinci site was set up like a giant bonfire, with plenty of fuel and plenty of air circulation.
"I wasn't necessarily surprised to see that it burned in construction," says Andrew Thul, a fire-protection consultant. "That's when these buildings are most vulnerable. Once complete, they aren't any more hazardous than any other."
Palmer's Renaissance apartments follow the same construction template, one that many buildings in Los Angeles follow — two concrete ground floors with five residential, wood-frame floors on top. Wood-frame construction (also called "stick and stucco") is exponentially cheaper than using other materials, such as steel. Not only is steel itself far more expensive than wood, but steel construction requires a higher skilled, and therefore higher paid, workforce.
According to city code, the maximum number of residential wood-frame floors you can build is five.
In other words, the arsonist who stopped at the side of the 110 freeway could scarcely have found a bigger pile of wood to set on fire. Perhaps that's what made him stop, get out of his car and crawl into the half-finished building for a look around. Perhaps that's why he came back, with a plan to burn it down.
That night, Lee says, Abdulwali was driving to the Valley to sell a fish tank: "He was selling stuff on Craigslist, to move to Japan.
"My theory is, he drives by and thinks, 'Damn, that could light up like a forest fire,'?" Lee says. "I think he was angry. I don't think Da Vinci was a target he was planning."
It just happened to be there, standing by the side of the freeway.
The northern section of the Da Vinci, untouched by the fire, opened in May 2015, right on schedule. Palmer's crews quickly rebuilt the southern building, which opened in August of this year. Its units went quickly — as of three weeks ago, only 34 were available out of 526, according to a rental agent who works there.
Abdulwali has been in jail since his arrest, held on a $1 million bond. His trial is scheduled to begin in January. If convicted, he faces up to a life sentence, due in part to the extent of the damages the fire caused.
(UPDATE, April 24, 2017: Dawud Abdulwali pleaded guilty to one count of arson in exchange for a reduced sentence of 15 years in prison.)
When police searched the most recent house Abdulwali had been staying at, the warrant stated they were looking for "documents associated with anti-establishment, anti-gentrification, anti-police or anti-government activities." Investigators searched for any connection between Abdulwali and Palmer. They found none.
"Honestly, he didn't seem like one of those militant type guys," Lee says. "He had opinions — he wasn't happy with police brutality. That's part of his culture, who he was. But I didn't have any problems, any issues. He didn't give me an attitude.
"He's just one of those guys. He had a cause. He wanted to make a statement."
The shell of the Da Vinci in the fire's aftermath
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