Arsonists Plague Illinois City

By Andy Kravetz, Journal Star | July 7, 2017

Dealing with a fire can be a serious problem on its own and becomes even more intense when people set buildings ablaze deliberately.

That’s the issue in South Peoria, Ill., in late 2016 and earlier this year when a rash of arsons kept fire inspectors busy. Many of the homes were in vacant buildings and close to each other, which could be a sign of a serial arsonist. It could also be a sign of a property owner trying to get insurance money. Fire Chief Charles Lauss said neither theory appears to be convincing.

A fire investigator in his earlier days, Lauss said deliberate fires to collect insurance tend to be the types that burn and burn well. It’s the theory of “if you are going to do something, go big or go home.”

Earlier this year, Fire Prevention Chief Phillip Maclin declined to comment on other issues, such as how the fires were started, but did add that he “didn’t think they were started to keep warm.” Fires across the city were up 44 percent in the month of December, with 23 fires as opposed to 16 the year before. There were 10 arsons in December across the city, up from eight in 2015.

There have been 27 incendiary fires, or ones that were set, from Dec. 15, 2016, until June 3, according to data from the Peoria Fire Department. The PFD also reported 12 fires of “undetermined cause.” Some of the 37 total fires were relatively minor – one was clothing set ablaze on a porch. Others, like the Dec. 19, 2016, blaze that destroyed the South Stop Grocery, caused severe damage.

But no arson in the city looms larger than the Madison Theater. The June 4, 2016, fire sent smoke billowing out of the 96-year-old former movie theater and concert venue. While it’s officially an arson, any more on what happened – why, how and who set the fire – isn’t being released yet by fire investigators or the police department. The building has been closed to the public since 2003 after City Hall deemed the Madison would need intensive renovation to bring it into compliance with safety standards.

Some of the delay is the waiting for results back from the “lab.” Be it a state forensic lab or a private one, it’s taking time to get everything back. And that, Lauss said, is because no stone or coffee cup or piece of paper or charred piece of wood is left unturned.

“It’s like putting together a puzzle,” the chief said. “Except it is a lot more tedious and you might not know what the picture looks like when you start.”

And because they don’t want to taint the investigation, nothing more is being released about the Madison Theater in the near future. That said, Lauss said, one year isn’t that long for an investigation. He cited an “open case” from the 1980s which led to the death of a Peoria firefighter as proof the department never stops working to close a case.

Chris Setti, Peoria’s assistant city manager, says City Hall is ready and willing to help with the redevelopment of the Madison if asked.

“We can’t really do anything until someone says they want our help,” he said.

The city can get involved up to a point by identifying ways to redevelop properties, but again it’s up to the owners to decide what to do with the buildings as long as they are structurally sound. And in the case of the Madison, Lauss said, that building isn’t going anywhere soon.

“It’s built really well and the exterior is in good shape, structurally,” he said.

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