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Alpine fire probe: Cellphone seized, exit door ‘ordered’ bolted shut

Updated February 13, 2020 - 3:52 pm

Criminal investigators have seized a cellphone that belongs to an owner of the Alpine Motel Apartments, the site of a December fire that left six dead.

According to a Wednesday court filing, a search warrant issued Jan. 29 approved a search and seizure of the phone at the law office of Dominic Gentile, a criminal defense attorney who is representing the owner, Adolfo Orozco.

The Wednesday filing also accuses the Alpine’s former live-in property manager, Jason Casteel, of ordering Alpine maintenance man Don Bennett to bolt the building’s rear exit door shut.

Residents have said the bolted exit door left some trapped the night of the fire, including Bennett, who died. It was one of more than 40 fire code violations noted in an inspection of the property after the Dec. 21 blaze, including a defective fire alarm system and missing or inoperable smoke detectors.

When the search warrant was issued, Orozco’s cellphone was being stored inside a safe at the law office, Gentile told the Las Vegas Review-Journal late Tuesday. In cooperation with authorities, an attorney at the office surrendered the phone to authorities last week, so no search of the office was conducted.

But Gentile argued in the new court filing that Las Vegas police investigators may have seized the phone without probable cause. That’s because the search warrant allowing its seizure was sealed as of early Wednesday, which means Gentile and his client cannot independently inspect the document.

Should a judge unseal the warrant, and should Gentile find that investigators failed to establish probable cause, Gentile also asked that a judge quash the warrant and direct authorities to return the phone to Orozco.

Defender wants warrant limited in scope

Separately, Gentile argued that, although authorities had a warrant to seize the phone, they have no warrant to search it, so they cannot inspect its contents.

Gentile proposed that any future search of the phone’s contents be limited in scope by both subject and time frame, so that investigators may only review content relevant to the care and maintenance of the Alpine — as well as the Dec. 21 fire — and so that investigators may only review said content if it was generated between June 1, 2019 and present day.

“You shouldn’t be looking in the year 2018 or 2017 for something that was related to a fire in December 2019,” Gentile told the Review-Journal late Tuesday.

To justify the proposed June 1, 2019, cutoff date, Gentile in the filing outlined a series of events leading up to the fire, all of which pointed to people other than his client, Orozco.

  • On June 5, a fire alarm monitoring company inspected the Alpine’s fire alarm system and found it to be in working order.
  • In late June or early July, Casteel, who is also known as Jason “Canteel,” began working as the Alpine’s live-in property manager, and he remained in that position through the deadly December fire.
  • In late August or early September, Casteel “was directed” to replace the Alpine’s rear door, because the door at the time was “failing to provide security for the residents from unauthorized persons entering,” according to the filing.
  • “Rather than replacing the door as directed, in November 2019, Jason Casteel/Canteel ordered Don Bennett to bolt the back door shut, which he did,” the filing reads.

Two days after the fire, the same fire alarm monitoring company that conducted the June inspection confirmed to Orozco that the system’s radio signals were not being received by the company, the filing concludes.

Should any search of Orozco’s phone be approved in the future, Gentile also requested that a third-party team of non-police personnel inspect the phone, retrieve the related contents and provide those contents to authorities, rather than allowing authorities themselves to inspect the phone.

Vincent Savarese III, another criminal defense attorney on Orozco’s legal team, said that the phone’s seizure as it stands could lead to an intrusion of Orozco’s privacy.

“My biggest concern is that a digital search of our client’s phone not turn into a fishing expedition beyond the scope of this investigation,” Savarese told the Review-Journal.

He added that the challenge filed Wednesday stands to set a new legal precedent in Nevada, because there are currently no state cases on the subject.

No criminal charges yet

Chief Deputy District Attorney Marc DiGiacomo, who is handling the criminal case, declined to comment Wednesday, and District Attorney Steve Wolfson did not respond to a request for comment.

Since January, the Review-Journal has been unable to reach Casteel, the Alpine property manager, who has retained criminal counsel since the fire, Gentile said. Gentile did not provide the name of Casteel’s attorney.

As of Wednesday, no criminal charges had been filed in the case.

On behalf of Orozco, Gentile said that, “On a personal level, he’s taking it pretty hard.”

“He’s doing what he can for the people that were living there, in terms of housing them at some of his other places,” Gentile said.

State records show Orozco is the managing member of Las Vegas Dragon Hotel LLC, which owns the Alpine. The company also owns several other properties throughout the valley, including the Starlite Motel and the Casa Blanca Hotel in North Las Vegas.

A hearing on the search warrant challenge is slated for March 19, court records show.

Contact Rachel Crosby at rcrosby@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3801. Follow @rachelacrosby on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Jeff German contributed to this report.

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