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Investigators: Arson destroyed Richmond Hill Inn

Investigators take note of Richmond Hill foreclosure

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Asheville firefighters continue to douse hotspots resulting from Thursday’s fire at the Richmond Hill Inn. Arson investigators at the scene have some suspicions about the cause of the fire that gutted the 120-year-old mansion. – Stephen Miller/smmiller@citizen-times.com

Joel BurgessJBurgess@CITIZEN-TIMES.com • published March 21, 2009 12:15 am

ASHEVILLE – An arsonist set the fire that burned down the historic Richmond Hill Inn in West Asheville, investigators said Friday.

Physical evidence convinced investigators that the early Thursday morning fire that destroyed the inn complex’s 120-year-old centerpiece was intentionally set, said Buddy Thompson, director of the Asheville-Buncombe Arson Task Force. Thompson said the evidence was a liquid petroleum product but would not specify what the substance was. He did not name any suspects or elaborate on further details of the investigation.

The fire came three days after owner William Gray lost a foreclosure proceeding that determined the inn would be auctioned April 16 on the Buncombe County Courthouse steps. Thompson said he would consider the foreclosure in the criminal investigation.

“It’s all part of the puzzle,” Thompson said. But he added, “just because there was a foreclosure, doesn’t mean it’s connected.”

Gray could not be reached for comment.

Investigators began searching the ruins on the hill overlooking the French Broad River even as firefighters continued to put out hot spots. No one was injured in the blaze that did more than $1 million in damage.

The arson is the second sustained by the complex, which suffered an intentionally set blaze in 1995 to a newer building. That case was never solved.

The inn, which was built on land originally purchased by the 19th century N.C. Chief Justice Richmond Pearson, was saved in the 1980s by history enthusiasts and private investors. People linked to the landmark expressed anger about the arson.

“The important thing was nobody was hurt,” said Susan Michel, daughter of the former owners. “But it is an irreplaceable part of history that my parents put so much work and love into.”

An incomplete 911 call at 1 a.m. Thursday first alerted firefighters to the blaze. More than 30 city firefighters, seven vehicles and multiple Buncombe County firefighting departments worked to control the fire.

No one was at the inn because it is closed during winter weekdays.

Local arson investigators automatically took up the case because of the size of the fire. A State Bureau of Investigation arson team also was called to help. The SBI brought a dog trained to sniff out liquid petroleum that could have been used to start the fire. Investigators sent at least seven samples from areas identified as suspicious by the dog, Edie, to a state lab. Confirmation could take days to a month, Thompson said.

Trained dogs are accurate in picking out liquid petroleum, or “accelerants,” more than 75 percent of the time, he said. Thompson first said there would be little other reason besides arson for the petroleum products to be present. Later, he backed away from that statement, saying there could be other reasons, including aerosol cans, which can contain petroleum products.

The evidence that he found leading to the arson conclusion did not need to be sent to a lab, Thompson said. He would not specify what the evidence was, saying he needed to keep it secret for the investigation.

“The arsonist that set it knows what he did, and I know what he did,” he said.

He said he did not know how many people might have been involved. Thompson will conduct the criminal investigation.

This has been a busy year so far with more than 40 arson investigations in the county, Thompson said. Most of those were determined to be arson. Last year saw a record 180 arson investigations, arson task force records show. Of those, 113 were ruled as intentionally set. Twenty-two — the highest percentage — were vehicle fires.

The fire followed a long and complex legal battle over a $6.8 million debt. Gray bought the inn for $10.4 million in 2005 from longtime owners Albert and Marge Michel, of Guilford County. The Michels owner-financed the sale, but Gray failed to pay most of the debt, so they began foreclosure hearings. Meanwhile, Gray sued the Michels, saying they did not tell him about plumbing problems. They denied the charges.

On Friday, rumors were flying among current and former employees about the arson and who might have set the fire that destroyed the historic inn.

Former innkeeper Frank Comito said he was angry that someone could have burned down the hotel and its landmark four-star restaurant where he and so many others worked for years.

“I hope that justice prevails, and the full force the law just hammers whoever was involved with this,” Comito said.
Joel Burgess Call Joel at 828-232-5960 or e-mail JBurgess@CITIZEN-TIMES.com.

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