Investigators continue their work as lawsuits hit over fires

By Jim Hagerty

DOWNTOWN – Officials continue to investigate a series of fires in Rockford that have been pegged as arsons.

City investigators have called on state and federal partners to move the investigation along. Mayor Tom McNamara said earlier in the week that the city was using all its available resources to bring an end to the spate of suspected arsons.

The string of blazes started in the afternoon of Sunday, June 25 with the former Hanley Furniture Building was engulfed in flames. The 301 S. Main St. structure was owned by Urban Equity Properties CEO Justin Fern’s Hanley Lofts LLC.

While crews were still working to control the flames, Fern told The Times he was only carrying liability insurance on the building, which would not protect him from losses incurred by the fire. That has now become a point of fact in a number of court filings Wednesday.

Midweek, Fern’s lawyer Jeff Orduno followed through on the promise of lawsuits for those he says defamed Fern, Hanley Lofts, and Urban Equity on social media. Nine suits were filed in county court, seeking $50,000 in damages from each defendant.

Orduno said Friday that he hoped people would stop fanning the flames of misinformation.

“I sued nine people on behalf of my clients,” Orduno said. “I’ll be suing more next week.”

Orduno added via email, “These people have spewed uninformed, black-helicopter mumbo-jumbo. It’s hard for any one person to chime in to shut these people down, because they are self-righteous bullies who don’t respond to reason or worry about actual facts (or, apparently, legal consequences).”

And he says the problem a larger issue than just Fern’s particular case.

“This problem is bigger than any one situation. The bigger issue is whether we, as a community, let people spread misinformation about others without consequence. For both ourselves and on behalf of all their victims, we’re done tolerating it.”

Many of the persons slapped with lawsuits had repeatedly speculated that Fern intentionally set the fire to collect insurance money. Such comments continued despite reports indicating that Fern stood to lose his entire investment in Hanley. Fern’s companies will also be expected to repay the city for demolition of the structure, around $500,000.

Investigators continue their work on Hanley and two buildings on South 7th Street. City officials told The Times security camera footage had been recovered from two of the blazes and that they expected its thorough review to provide still more clues.

Rockford Fire Division Chief Matt Knott and McNamara said Thursday that they have full confidence the investigation will come to a successful conclusion. R.

–Staff report

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