Arson declared in blaze at BLM building
Vehicle theft, vanadalism also tied to strange incident
Originally published 2013-12-05
An investigation into a fire at the local office of a federal land management agency has revealed a wide array of crimes that appear to be tied to the incident.
The apparent crime spree began with a break-in at the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Gunnison Field Office headquarters, at 650 S. 11th St., late Friday or early Saturday. During the burglary, it's believed that the fire was started.
The blaze was called in by the tenant of the building's upstairs apartment at approximately 3:45 a.m. Saturday.
Yet, vandalism and the theft of a BLM-owned vehicle also are being to tied the burglary and fire.
The Gunnison Fire Department was able to extinguish the fire without injury, and the building does not appear to have suffered structural damage, according to a prepared statement from Gunnison Police.
Chief Keith Robinson said damage from the fire was confined to the office area and its contents.
"The fire appears to have been intentionally set," he said.
Robinson said Monday that it had yet to be determined what actually started the fire.
Gunnison Police called the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to assist in the investigation, including the use of a special arson investigation K9 unit.
A BLM statement Tuesday indicated that the building sustained smoke damage and broken windows, and some computers and office furniture were destroyed.
Equipment was also found to be missing from the scene, according to BLM officials.
A BLM-owned vehicle was also found a few blocks from the building. Police say the vehicle was stolen from the fenced parking lot east of the BLM headquarters, and appears to have been taken during the time frame being investigated for the fire and burglary.
Robinson indicated that other vehicles at the scene were damaged through apparent acts of vandalism.
"It's not our normal type (of incident)," he admitted. "We don't know if all three are connected at this point. The assumption is that they are."
Motive still in question
Early this week, officers had yet to identify suspects or a motive.
"We know the (BLM office) was closed at the time," Robinson explained. "We know that we found all of this — the vehicle was missing, the fire and obviously somebody broke in prior to the fire."
The BLM's Gunnison office is closed until further notice. In the interim, the public is asked to contact the agency at the Montrose Public Lands Center, 970.240.5300.
Brian St. George, manager of the Gunnison Field Office, said early Tuesday that BLM officials were in the midst of an incident command team meeting — basing operations out of a conference room at the U.S. Forest Service headquarters at 216 N. Colorado St. in Gunnison.
"One of our first priorities is finding a suitable, temporary location for all employees," he said. "That may be a variety of different locations, from home tele-work offices to shared space with the Forest Service or Parks Service to potentially a new leasing space."
St. George said that officials were in the midst of assessing those options early this week.
"We'll hopefully move into the recovery phase of priority work in the next few days, and then into a longer-term transition as that building is renovated, repaired and cleaned," he explained. "I do not know if we'll return and occupy that space."
Awakened by an 'explosion'
Bob Bernard has resided in the approximately 800-square-foot apartment unit above the building's 3,750-square-foot office space since 2006, acting as a caretaker for the facilty.
At about 3:30 a.m. Saturday, Bernard said he was awakened by what sounded like "an explosion," though he didn't smell smoke. As it turns out, he believes that sound resulted from the rupture of aerosol cans during the fire.
"From my past training, the first thing I new I wanted to do was go shut the gas off," he said.
Yet, it didn't take long for Bernard to realize the building was ablaze. He phoned authorities, who arrived on scene shortly after, he said.
In retrospect, he recalled hearing noise downstairs at about 10 p.m. Friday. He figured at the time that it was a cleaning crew, but learned later that the cleaning company wasn't working at the building that night.
Although authorities gave him the green light Saturday, Bernard said he was still too shaken to return to staying in his apartment until Sunday.
"What's a real blessing is you look downstairs and everything is just black as night, and my place is just immaculate," he said.
The mixed-use building was constructed by owner Sandra Head, of Montrose, in 1998 to house Bob's Rentals. The downstairs space was then occupied by rental outfit RSC from 2000 until 2010, when the BLM moved in.
"It's very unsettling to get a call at four o'clock in the morning saying that there's been an explosion and a fire," Head said. "The first thought is, is everyone okay?"
Head journeyed to Gunnison Monday to inspect the carnage from the fire.
"It was much more damage than I even imagined," she admitted.
Head said the building will be renovated as quickly as possible.
"My heart goes out to (BLM) employees," she added. "There's so much personal stuff you keep at your office, and the damage is horrific."
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)