Police chief says arson was probable cause

Photo by Ann McCreary Scott Roberts, left, a private investigator working for Mutual of Enumclaw, and Brian Brett, Douglas County fire marshal, examine damage at the Twisp River Pub as part of separate investigations into the Feb. 29 fire that caused extensive damage.

Photo by Ann McCreary

Scott Roberts, left, a private investigator working for Mutual of Enumclaw, and Brian Brett, Douglas County fire marshal, examine damage at the Twisp River Pub as part of separate investigations into the Feb. 29 fire that caused extensive damage.

By Ann McCreary

Investigators were continuing to look for evidence this week in connection with a fire at the Twisp River Pub that Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow said was almost certainly arson.

“I’m 90 percent sure it’s arson,” Budrow said Tuesday (March 8). “I’m going with the belief it is arson.”

Budrow said he would begin interviews this week as part of his investigation into the Feb. 29 fire, which caused extensive damage to the pub.

The lead fire investigator on the incident is Douglas County Fire Marshal Brian Brett, who is working closely with Budrow and local fire and police officials.

An independent investigator hired by Mutual of Enumclaw, which insured the pub, arrived Monday (March 7) to conduct a separate investigation, Budrow said. The investigator has called in an electrical engineer “to confirm it wasn’t an electrical fire,” Budrow said.

Brett conducted a preliminary investigation last week and requested assistance from the federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) with the investigation. Neither the Spokane or Seattle offices of ATF were able to send agents to the scene, but are available for consultation, Budrow said.

Budrow said he would bring in an outside law enforcement officer to conduct some interviews as part of his investigation because the Twisp River Pub owner, Aaron Studen, is a member of the Twisp Town Council.

Budrow said he didn’t want there to be any appearance of influence or conflict of interest related to the fact that Studen is involved in town government. The outside interviewer would likely come from the Okanogan County Sheriff’s office or the Washington State Patrol, Budrow said.

“Most of the interviews will be done by me or my agency,” he said.

Started in office

The fire is believed to have started in the pub office near the back of the building, and spread toward the kitchen, Budrow said. The restaurant portion of the pub did not burn, but was heavily damaged by smoke.

Budrow said a pile of burned towels — the small white restaurant towels used to wipe off tables — was found on top of the bar in the restaurant, “where there were no other areas burned.”

It was apparent that “this was not right,” Budrow said. “It appears they [the towels] had some kind of accelerant,” he said.

Although the towels were completely burned, they didn’t ignite their surroundings. Budrow said the intense fire and smoke in the adjoining kitchen and office areas may have pulled oxygen from the restaurant and bar area, preventing fire from spreading in the front part of the building, Budrow said.

“I’ve got what I need to prove it’s arson,” Budrow said. In addition to the burned towels, Budrow said there is other evidence of probable arson, but he did not elaborate.

Budrow said Tuesday he had not conducted any interviews in connection with the fire investigation yet “because I wanted to get the physical investigation finished first.”

Evidence collected from the fire will be sent to the State Patrol crime laboratory for processing. It could take weeks or up to a year to get results back, Budrow said, because the pub fire did not involve injury or death, and therefore may have lower priority for processing than evidence in other crimes.

Among the evidence is a surveillance system in the pub. Although it was damaged in the fire, “the DVR hard drive is still intact” and will be sent to the crime lab for processing, Budrow said.

He said there was no evidence of a break-in or burglary in the building.

Budrow added that  he is seeking photographs taken the night of the fire, or photos of the back of the building taken any time prior to the fire.

Gathering more evidence

While waiting to hear last week whether ATF would assist with the investigation, Budrow and other officers guarded the pub around the clock for three days and surveillance cameras were installed inside the building to protect evidence. Entrances to the building were sealed with plywood and yellow tape was strung around the perimeter.

Brett will continue gathering evidence next week, Budrow said. The burned kitchen and office areas have been secured while the investigation is ongoing, but the front of the building “has been released,” the police chief said.

The fire was reported about 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 29 and the back portion of the building was fully engaged when firefighters arrived. Residents near the pub reported hearing and seeing explosions before firefighters arrived, and there were two explosions after they were on the scene, said Cody Acord, interim chief for Okanogan County Fire District 6.

Budrow said this week there were five or six explosions, likely caused by fuses in the electrical system, tires on a car parked next to the pub, and a propane tank inside the building. None of the explosions has been linked to possible arson, he said.

About 25 firefighters from District 6 fought the fire, along with about 15 firefighters from Douglas-Okanogan County Fire District 15 in Brewster. It was brought under control by 6 a.m.

Studen estimated damages from the fire at “several hundred thousand dollars” last week. He said most of the brewing equipment survived the fire.

The pub had been closed for kitchen renovations in November and December. It has been listed for sale for about three years.

Studen built the Twisp River Pub after fire destroyed his first restaurant and pub on Second Avenue in Twisp in 2001. He said last week that it is too early to know what will be possible in terms of reopening the Twisp River Pub, which employs up to 35 people in summer.