June 17, 2008

Authorities delay arrest of two in Tehachapi depot blaze

The Bakersfield Californian

A two-alarm fire ripped through a historic Tehachapi train depot Friday morning, causing more than $1 million in damage and leaving a community distraught. Photo by Nick Smirnoff / Special to The Californian

TEHACHAPI — Police have identified two men from Tehachapi, aged 36 and 31, as the two suspects who allegedly caused the Tehachapi train depot fire last week.

The suspects have not been arrested because police are waiting for the Kern County District Attorney’s office to file a complaint against them, police said in a news conference Wednesday afternoon held in front of the charred ruins of the train depot.

The two men were approached individually Monday afternoon by Tehachapi police and in subsequent questioning, along with evidence from the burnt train depot, police believe they caused the fire.

“They were cooperative,” said Tehachapi Police Chief Jeff Kermode. “There was no resistance in the lengthy interview.”

Kermode said the men will not be arrested until the Kern County Fire Department arson investigators present the case to the District Attorney’s office.

The first man contacted “expressed great remorse over the outcome and great fear over the consequences,” Kermode said.

The second man did not show much remorse, he said.

He said the men were not a flight risk because they both had jobs in Tehachapi, one raising a family there.

The arson investigators were expected to present their case to the District Attorney’s office either Wednesday or today, said Phil Castle, Kern County Deputy Fire Chief.

Investigators found that fireworks, which are illegal in mountain areas like Tehachapi, caused the fire. Police said the two men had also been drinking that night.

“Alcohol and illegal fireworks are not a good combination,” Kermode said.

Arson investigators began by consulting with builders who were rehabbing the old train depot, which was to become a museum, to find out if a construction accident was to blame.

Police were tipped off that two men were lighting off fireworks at about 9 p.m. that night. A squad car patrolled the area and the two men left, but they returned around 2 a.m. to light the rest of their fireworks, police said. The fire began shortly after 3 a.m.

Police said they received a tip Saturday stating remnants of fireworks could be found along nearby railroad tracks. The police found and collected those remnants. Those clues led them to the two men. They could be charged with felony arson and felony possession of fireworks.

Shortly before the fire, a new extinguisher system had been installed as part of the depot’s renovation. The water line had not yet been set up.

During the fire, which lasted several hours, at least one propane tank was ruptured by the heat, causing a blast that broke windows in nearby stores.

The news conference drew both media and a crowd of residents, who gathered on the sidewalk in front of the burnt Historic Tehachapi Train Depot. City dignitaries including Mayor Deborah Hand and Councilman Ed Grimes expressed their sorrow over losing the landmark, but promised to rebuild.

“We can rebuild the building but the old wood smells won’t be there,” she said. “It’s a deep feeling of loss.”

As a kid, Grimes used to play hide-and-go-seek in the old building. Tears ran down his face when he watched the building burn.

“To see it all go up in smoke really got to me,” he said.