Fresno fires probed as possible hate crimes
by Katya Kumkova-Wolpert
Fire and police departments in Fresno are investigating two recent fires at gay-owned nightspots, and investigators are working to determine whether arsonists started the blazes to target the LGBT community. The fires would be considered hate crimes if a connection and ill intent is found, authorities said.
"We're treating it as the most serious possibility, which is that it was a serial arson targeting the gay and lesbian community," said Don Macalpine, Fresno's deputy fire marshal. "You've got two establishments within a block of each other. Both have a significant history of gay and lesbian affiliation. Both fires happened around the same time."
The fires were called in on September 26 at 3:56 a.m. and October 1, at 4:11 a.m.
The first fire took place at the North Tower Circle, a gay bar on N. Maroa Street. It caused an estimated $375,000 in damage and forced five staffers out of work, according to Nathan Christopherson of www.gayfresno.com.
Another gay-owned commercial building on N. Maroa suffered minor damage from a fire that was started on its exterior, Macalpine said. The building was home to a gay dance club known as The Express for several years. It is now vacant.
Macalpine said the fire department is calling the second fire arson.
Community residents in the Central Valley city are concerned but had praise for the authorities' work so far, saying the matter is being taken seriously.
"We're just concerned for the safety of our community. And we just want the reassurance from our safety officials that they're doing everything they can," Christopherson said.
Last Friday, Equality California, a statewide civil rights organization concerned with LGBT issues, held a press conference in Fresno.
"I think it's an area that's in transition," EQCA's Molly McKay said of the city. "We don't know for sure how the fires started, but it certainly could be a reaction to increased visibility of the LGBT community."
Last month, Fresno hosted the Reel Pride Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. The LGBT community has also held several rallies in the area focusing on the same-sex marriage issue in recent months, McKay said.
Fresno Mayor Alan Autry, a former television star, came out against the same-sex marriage bill before Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it. Autry also held a rally against same-sex marriage in Fresno last year after San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom directed city officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Autry did not return phone calls from the Bay Area Reporter seeking comment on the fires.
"There's nothing for him to say until the investigation is complete," public affairs officer Patti Miller at the mayor's office said on Friday. "Because the investigation hasn't been completed yet, there's no proof about it being a hate crime. It's kind of like saying because three houses are caught on fire, somebody hates suburbia."
McKay and Christopherson both said the police and fire departments are doing a good job on investigating the recent blazes.
Dennis Bridges, police district commander in central Fresno, said he has alerted Fresno's 100-some patrol officers to be on the lookout for any clues that could lead to solving the crimes. A police detective is working alongside the fire department's arson investigator, he said.
Macalpine, of the Fresno Fire Department, said anyone who has information about the fires should contact him at (559) 621-4446 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Those who live outside of Fresno could monitor the Internet for any discussion of the fires, he said.