Created on Monday, 05 September 2005 00:00
St. John Fire Chief Brian Chapman and other fire and police officials in front of burned out Meadas Plaza after a store in the St. Johnian-owned shopping mall was set afire early Thursday morning, September 1.
Within one day, three suspicious fires were set on both ends of Love City, fueling tensions and fears throughout the community.
Two suspected arsons were reported within one-half hour of each other in Cruz Bay and Coral Bay on Thursday morning, September 1.
The fires came just hours after an emotionally-charged gathering in Cruz Bay where hundreds of community members probed local and federal law enforcement officials for answers about a reported rape on the islands East End.
A blue 1983 Jeep Scrambler CJ-8 was set ablaze in Cruz Bay at approximately 2 a.m. and someone attempted to start a fire inside of Skinny Legs in Coral Bay around 2:30 a.m., according to Brian Chapman, V.I. Fire Department St. John chief.
Suspected arson left a Jeep burned out in Cruz Bay.
The vehicle, owned by Robert Sells, was parked in front of Sells furniture store, Close Reach Imports, at the entrance to Meadas Plaza. The interior of the vehicle was gutted and part of the exterior was charred.
The two-story building in the complex, owned by the family of revered St. Johnian Myrah Keating Smith, was not damaged in the first incident.
The following morning shortly before 3 a.m., the Close Reach showrooms on either side of one entrance to the open-air mall surrounding Rhumb Lines restaurant in the heart of Cruz Bay burst into flames with Sells charred Jeep still parked outside.
The first floor of the building suffered heavy damage.
No one was injured and there were no suspects in any of the suspicious fires, according to the St. John Fire Department chief.
There are no suspects but it is under investigation, said Chief Chapman.
Fire fighters arrived around 3 a.m. Friday to find Close Reach Imports engulfed in flames.
We are only a stones throw away, and when we arrived the fire was coming out of both ends of the building, Chapman said. When a fire spreads that quickly it is definitely suspicious.
The fire jumped across the gap in the middle of the store in seconds it didnt do that on its own, the fire chief added.
The fire gutted Close Reach Imports, located on the bottom floor, but the top floor, which has been unoccupied for two months, sustained only smoke damage.
Nearby Rhumb Lines restaurant suffered both smoke and water damage and the owners said it would not reopen for at least a week.
The fire was contained in a masonry structure so it was easy to keep it from spreading, said Chapman. Basically, the fire department was there quickly and it was a masonry structure, so it was contained.
No Additional Security
Residents are questioning why additional security wasnt increased in the area where Sells Jeep was set on fire the previous morning.
There was no extra surveillance that I am aware of, said V.I. Police Department Deputy Chief Angelo Hill.
A surveillance camera near the fires at the First Bank corner is constantly taping and will be reviewed, according to Hill and Chapman.
The owner of the burned out car and store said he believes the suspected arson is linked to public assumptions about his involvement in several recent reported hate crimes; however, Sells claims he is innocent in all related incidents.
Id like to remain innocent until proven guilty, said Sells before his store burned.
At the first public meeting where the reported rape was discussed on Tuesday, August 30, Sells was mentioned by Senator at Large Craig Barshinger in reference to the recent complaints of racially offensive grafitti at Meadas Plaza.
At that same meeting, a community activist reminded the audience of an unsolved 12-year old Coral Bay murder case where the victim was found behind the Skinny Legs bar and restaurant.
Although the cause of the Jeep fire is undetermined, the VIFD chief said the fire was started and contained in the seating area and was easily extinguished.
The fires are suspected arsons but are undetermined at this time, said Chief Chapman. The Fire Departments inspector is currently investigating the cause of the fire, he added.
It has not been determined that the fires are arson as of yet, but they are being investigated as suspicious arson, said Chapman in reference to the two Cruz Bay fires. Hopefully in the next few days we will get a definite answer, but the fire inspector still has to finish doing some work, especially at Meadas Plaza.
Although the cause of the Jeep fire is still unknown, preliminary investigative reports indicate the fire was intentionally set, according to Chapman.
Skinny Legs Attempted Arson
At Skinny Legs, co-owner Moe Chabuz said he found ashes and a table on the floor when he arrived at the restaurant on Thursday morning, September 1.
Other workers at the popular Coral Bay establishment said that they smelled fumes that seemed like gasoline as well.
Few details about the attempted fire at Skinny Legs have emerged, but Chief Chapman said it was suspicious.
It was definitely arson and its under investigation, said Chapman.
The fire chief said that both the fire and police departments are investigating the incident.
They are all suspicious fires, but we cant say they are arsons until the investigators prove that, said the fire chief.
Incidents Not Yet Linked
Neither the fire department nor the police department have linked the three incidents, according to officials.
There are two things going on, we are concerned about the fire and the police are concerned about the motives behind the fire, said Chapman.
The fire department chief has been a fire fighter on St. John for 27 years and said these recent fires are out of the ordinary for the island.
In the past, every couple years we have a major fire, but they are accidents, said Chapman. These three fires are very suspicious.
The fire department has stepped up manpower at both stations in Cruz Bay and Coral Bay with additional fire fighters on call.
Chapman also is reminding the community that the fire department has limited resources and with hurricane season in its prime, it is crucial to preserve them.
Please realize that the same fire department resources are protecting everybody in case of a natural disaster or a fire, said Chapman. We are pleading with the public to realize that they are burning up the resources that might be needed somewhere else.