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Search warrant records reveal focus of Alpine criminal investigation

Updated January 22, 2020 - 3:00 pm

Newly released search warrant records from the Alpine Motel Apartments show criminal investigators raided the property manager’s office and live-in unit in the days after the deadly December fire.

Investigators seized a computer as well as binders and a filing cabinet of paperwork inside the unit where manager Jason Casteel lived with his fiancee.

According to the search warrant records, investigators were looking for inspection records and any documented resident complaints, as well as any documented communication between residents, managers and the hotel’s ownership — Las Vegas Dragon Hotel LLC and its managing member, Adolfo Orozco.

Six people died and 13 were injured in the Dec. 21 fire, which resident interviews, as well as records released over the past month, suggest started on the first floor of the 42-unit apartment building exactly a month ago.

A rear exit door on the first floor was bolted shut from the outside, leaving some residents trapped. Others upstairs, choked by overwhelming smoke, resorted to jumping from second- and third-story windows to get out, including DeJoy Wilson, who at the time was three months pregnant.

In post-fire inspections of the property on Dec. 22 and 23, inspectors noted more than 40 fire code violations, including the sealed exit door, a defective fire alarm system, vending machines that blocked exit pathways and security bars in a sleeping area that had no emergency release.

Investigators during the raid also searched for any “tools, hardware and like items used to secure the rear door,” records show. They also scoured the property for any “items evincing improper maintenance,” seizing the full alarm panel from the manager’s office as well as a cellphone and notebook from the unit of maintenance man Don Bennett, who died in the fire.

Records previously released to the Review-Journal showed ongoing issues with the building’s fire alarm system dating back to at least 2013, the year the property’s current ownership bought the building.

One post-fire violation noted the alarm panel at the time of the blaze was “strapped” — a makeshift attempt to falsely portray that it was working properly, Las Vegas Fire Marshal Robert Nolan said.

Possible charges

Following the fire, District Attorney Steve Wolfson confirmed that a criminal case was underway, with both Las Vegas police and the Las Vegas Fire Department investigating.

“In a case like this, there are many moving parts,” Wolfson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in an email last week. “There are a number of agencies that are participating in the investigation and many interviews and forensic examinations that must be completed.”

As of Jan. 21, no criminal charges had been filed against Orozco or Casteel.

“If and when a case is forwarded to my office, it will certainly get the attention that is appropriate,” Wolfson’s email continued. “It is on my radar.”

Possible charges could include involuntary manslaughter or second-degree murder, former Clark County District Attorney Stewart Bell, who held the office from 1995 to 2002, surmised.

“The issue is whether or not — nonetheless, despite their intent — they did something wrong, or didn’t do something they should have,” Bell told the Review-Journal. “When you sort of disregard your obligation, there’s social punishment that goes along with it.”

Bell said it could be months before any charges may be filed, which is typical in fire investigations.

“There’s a big burden that the state will have to meet to be able to develop enough evidence to be comfortable to develop a prosecution, given the standard,” Bell said. “Because even if they’re morally outraged, they won’t use public resources to go after this unless they know there’s something there.”

Veteran Las Vegas defense attorney Dominic Gentile, who is representing Orozco, told the Review-Journal he is steadily communicating with Wolfon’s office and assisting with the criminal investigation, as well as conducting his own.

“It’s a tragic event and there are many, many players involved,” Gentile said.

Attempts to reach Casteel, the Alpine property manager, were unsuccessful.

Other hotel buildings

Clark County property records show Las Vegas Dragon Hotel LCC, the company that Orozco is tied to, also owns three additional hotel buildings. Each of the hotels has a history of verified complaints, failed inspections and health code violations, Southern Nevada Health District records show.

In May, the health district ordered the company to ensure that each of its hotels had working smoke detectors, the Review-Journal previously reported. It also mandated that the company maintain adequate pest control measures at the properties and outfit each room with sanitary mattresses.

But that mandate was not extended to the Alpine, because the Alpine instead operated as an apartment complex, and the health district does not regulate private residences, a spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, records show that the City of Las Vegas licensed the Alpine as a “residence hotel” — a discrepancy that may have left the property vulnerable. When one person complained to the city in 2019 about the building’s habitability issues, records show that the city instead pointed them to the health district, which had no jurisdiction.

A city fire inspector also hadn’t set foot in the building since April 2017, following more than a decade of failed fire inspections, the Review-Journal previously reported.

Property records also show Orozco and his wife, Erika Ayala Aguilar, own 20 additional residential properties, including both single-family and multifamily homes, at least some of which are being rented to tenants, the Review-Journal confirmed.

Records suggest that the couple lives in a six-bedroom, 6,250-square-foot home that sits in a gated subdivision in the southern Las Vegas Valley. A Review-Journal reporter who attempted to visit the home was denied entrance at the gate.

Unusual case

Should Wolfson’s office file charges, it could mark the first time in Clark County that a residential property owner or manager has faced criminal charges following a fire death.

A cursory search of Review-Journal records revealed no such case dating back to 1929. Wolfson said he could not recall a “case of this kind” during his tenure, and neither could Bell.

In California, after the 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire that killed 36, Alameda County prosecutors built an involuntary manslaughter case against the warehouse’s master tenant Derick Almena and his assistant Max Harris.

The warehouse, which was only permitted for industrial purposes, had living spaces on the first floor that Almena reportedly rented out to artists, squeezed among a maze of makeshift hallways made of repurposed wood and other items. The night of the fire, Harris hosted a concert that drew about 100 attendees. There were no fire alarms, sprinklers or smoke detectors in the building.

Harris was acquitted, and prosecutors are gearing up for Almena’s retrial after a deadlocked 2018 jury resulted in a mistrial.

In Maine, after a 2014 house fire left six people dead, state prosecutors built a manslaughter case against the Portland building’s landlord, Gregory Nisbet.

Prosecutors argued that Nisbet should not have been renting rooms on the home’s third floor as none of the rooms had a viable second exit. Three of those who died in the fire were trapped on the third floor, because the floor’s windows — which could have counted as an exit — were too small for them to escape, according to the Bangor Daily News.

Nisbet never faced a jury. Instead, in a bench trial, a judge decided his fate. Nisbet was acquitted of manslaughter but convicted of a misdemeanor fire code violation. He was sentenced to 90 days of jail.

On Tuesday, the Clark County Commission is expected to discuss fire inspections at apartment buildings and complexes, according to an agenda item. Commissioner Justin Jones said the discussion was scheduled as a result of the Alpine fire.

Las Vegas Fire Marshal Robert Nolan’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.

Contact Rachel Crosby at rcrosby@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3801. Follow @rachelacrosby on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Michael Scott Davidson contributed to this story.

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