Hobart fire investigation continues, patrols added
By Karen Caffarini Post-Tribune correspondent June 5, 2014 5:47PM
Scorch marks are visible on the roof Thursday, June 5, 2014, of the former St. Sava Hall in Hobart after a fire Wednesday night. | Carole Carlson~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 7, 2014 6:22AM
HOBART — While the cause of a Wednesday night fire at the former St. Sava banquet hall remains under investigation, Hobart police are beefing up patrols in the area and looking into leads of suspects seen running from the building.
“Generally, if any location is vandalized, or in this case, the site of a likely arson, we’ll add extra patrols. We’d do it for anyone,” Police Chief Richard Zormier said.
Meanwhile, the owner of the property at 4101 W. 49th Ave., The GEO Group, said in an email that it is coordinating efforts with the city to demolish and remove the building from the property.
The long-vacant building at 4101 W. 49th Ave. has been the target of vandals and scrappers in the past, Zormier said. The building has been stripped of copper and aluminum and the parking lot is littered with debris.
Mayor Brian Snedecor had asked The GEO Group to either raze the building or secure it several months ago, after some residents questioned the safety of the building. GEO promptly had the building boarded up.
Lt. Bob Scott, EMS director and lead fire investigator for the Hobart Fire Department, said they fought another fire at the former hall a couple of years ago, which caused considerably more damage.
“We couldn’t pinpoint who did it and never found any conclusive evidence. It was ruled an undetermined cause last time,” Scott said.
Scott said the fire Wednesday is still under investigation as well and no cause has been determined.
First Sgt. Jeremy Ogden, commander of investigations for Hobart Police, said a couple of people fishing at the adjacent Robinson Lake at the time of the fire told police they saw some people running out of the back area of the former church hall just before the fire started. But the statements conflicted after that, Ogden said.
“One person said the suspects got into a possible blue Geo and left in an unknown direction. Another person said he saw someone run down the bike path,” Ogden said.
“We’re continuing to look into this and any more leads,” Ogden said.
Scott said firefighters had to get a payloader to dig through a pile of dirt that had been poured at the entrance to the GEO site.
“I don’t know who did it, but it held us up for 15 minutes before getting to the building,” Scott said of the dirt pile.
He said firefighters had to work around some unsafe conditions when battling the blaze, including a collapsed roof and the floor in an upstairs area, which was unstable due to the previous fire.
Scott said he hasn’t estimated a dollar value loss due to the fire, noting the building was already in disrepair.
The 40-acre site that houses the church hall became a center of controversy last year, after it was announced that The GEO Group, a Florida-based builder and operator of for-profit immigrant detention centers and prisons, had purchased it.
Local opposition has mounted to a possible immigrant detention center being built there, although The GEO Group has not made any formal announcement on what it plans to do with the site.
“We will also continue to engage community stakeholders in discussions about the potential economic opportunities and jobs associated with our project,” GEO spokesman Pable Paez said in the email.