On a cool, drizzly February night in 2003, at one thirty or so in the morning, a police officer cruising down Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica spotted flames shooting horizontally out a window of the Simply Sofas furniture showroom. From overhead he could hear popping sounds as the fire leapt up to eat at the power lines in the street outside. Inside, the blaze spread quickly, engulfing upholstery and wood, roaring up through the roof and melting the metal skin right off the loading dock door.
The fire was almost immediately deemed suspicious. Firefighters reported the strong smell of gasoline, and when investigators were able to get inside the building the next day, they found three “firebombs”—five-gallon plastic water jugs cut off at the neck, stuffed with paper and filled with gasoline. The evidence was gathered and sent to the lab.
Five months later, Sergeant Robert Almada, the police investigator for Santa Monica’s Arson Squad Task Force, walked into the interview room at the police station on Main Street with every reason to believe things were going his way. He had motive—revenge—and he had the kind of physical evidence almost never left behind in a fire: thirty pieces of gasoline-soaked mail, each addressed to the suspect or his wife. (In the heat of the blaze, the firebombs had caved in on themselves, preserving the magazines and catalogs and envelopes inside.) That suspect, one Anthony Smith, six feet four inches and over 320 pounds, a 36-year-old former defensive end for the L.A./Oakland Raiders, dwarfed the little table in the room.