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W.Va. lodge fire said to be arson

July 01, 2003|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

The June 19 fire that destroyed The Mountain Lake Lodge in Shannondale, W.Va., has been ruled arson and investigators were analyzing documents from the building's burglar alarm to determine the point at which intruders might have entered the lodge, officials said Monday.

The fire at the Adirondack-style lodge was ruled arson after investigators ruled out all possible natural and accidental causes, West Virginia Assistant State Fire Marshal Ed Robinson said.

Investigators had not identified any suspects, but there are "persons of interest being looked at," Jefferson County Sheriff Everett "Ed" Boober said Monday.

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Police will do background checks on those people to determine their affiliation with the lodge, their knowledge of the facility and any possible motives they might have had for setting a fire, Boober said.

"We'll be interviewing a lot of people," Robinson said.

Boober could not say whether someone broke into the lodge before the fire, but he said investigators were examining documents from the lodge's alarm system.

An intrusion alarm and a fire alarm in the lodge were activated on the morning of the fire, Boober said.

Fire officials said previously that the fire alarm went out at 2:57 a.m.

Police were examining the alarm documents to determine where intruders might have entered the building and what route through the building they might have taken, Boober said.

"It's really a lot of methodical analyzations," said Boober, adding that the federal department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives assigned extra people to investigate the fire.

Arson signs have been posted around the lodge's property. The signs read "Arson" and "West Virginia's Burning. We're trying to stop it," Robinson said.

The signs also note that a reward of up to $2,500 was being offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case, said Robinson. The sign offers a toll free number - 800-233-FIRE - that people with information can call, Robinson said.

In addition to the reward being offered through the Fire Marshal's office, community members in the Shannondale area where the lodge was located have raised about $10,000 to offer as a reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case, said Elizabeth Houghton, owner of the lodge.

The lodge, which was built in 1956, had recently been renovated. Loss was estimated at $2 million.

Shannondale-area residents were to meet at the lodge's bathhouse next door at 7 p.m. today to consider forming a citizens coalition to "stop the terrorism and abuse" in the area, Houghton said Monday.

Houghton said the lodge has been a repeated target of vandalism and arson, and she was not surprised when the state Fire Marshal's Office made its ruling on the cause of the fire.

"I always thought it was arson," Houghton said.

In previous incidents of vandalism, the lodge's sign was burned, a fence was battered with a stolen car and a gutted fish was tossed near the building's front door, Houghton said.

Two days before the fire, a wooden fence near the lodge was knocked down and pieces of the fence were used to construct a tepee-like structure, Houghton said.

Houghton said she did not know the meaning behind the structure.

Houghton said she believes some of the vandalism may be rooted in jealously against the lodge.

The lodge, an impressive structure constructed of pine beams, housed a restaurant, billiards area and pub and a fly-fishing and clothing shop. Houghton wanted to do more work on the lodge, such as expanding overnight accommodations.

Boober said it was too early to determine whether the fire constituted a hate crime. That likely will not be determined until a suspect or group of suspects are identified, Boober said.

On Monday evening, a yellow tape remained stretched across the entrance to the lodge and a police cruiser was parked next to the lodge site. For about a week, off-duty officers from the Charles Town Police Department have been hired to guard the site, said Charles Town Police Chief Mike Aldridge.

The lodge's insurance company wanted officers to guard the site daily from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. to keep people from entering the area, Aldridge said.

After the fire, parts of the lodge were sent to a federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lab in Beltsville, Md., for analysis.

The testing, which may help investigators learn more about how the fire started, was still being conducted, ATF special agent Laura Volk said Monday.

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