Probe continues in string of Rockford fires

By Jim Hagerty

ROCKFORD — Although it is not known whether three acts of suspected arson to three Rockford buildings are linked, officials say the probe to determine who was responsible is ongoing.

The fire at the Hanley Furniture building, 301 S. Main St., was the first in the string of four recent blazes. The historic structure tapped for an upcoming rebuild went up in flames June 25. It has since been demolished, and crews are now securing the site for a temporary green space.

Few details of the Hanley investigation have been released, other than the financial losses to the city and owner, Hanley Lofts LLC. The city has spent a reported $550,000 to demolish the structure plus more than $25,000 to fill an underground vault.

Hanley Lofts, controlled by Urban Equity Properties CEO Justin Fern, was only carrying liability insurance at the time of the fire and is out the $355,000 purchase price and more than a year’s worth of planning. The city is expected to seek demolition costs from Fern’s companies, pushing his losses even further into the red. Fern told The Times earlier this month he could be out as much as $1 million when the dust settles.

Officials say the fire started in the back of the building, near where Magpie restaurant shared a wall with the Hanley. Restaurant owner Stephanie Caltagerone is still assessing damage to her business and says she is months from reopening.

Find out more: What the Hanley happened?

The July 2 fire that claimed 301 7th St., also started in the back of the three-story building, leading investigators to a possible connection to the Hanley incident. That link has not yet been made, and private fireworks were ignited near the building before witnesses reported the fire.

The upper floors were vacant while the storefront was occupied by El Olivo Grocery. Sources say there is a separate investigation there, although it is not known if it is connected to the fire.

The Midtown District was the site of a second fire on July 6, an incident Rockford Fire Division Chief Matt Knott says is also believed to be a deliberate blaze at the vacant 616 7th St. The interior walls and floors collapsed while units responded. The rest of the building has since been leveled, and the adjoining El Navegante Bar is expected to be a total loss.

Footage from nearby surveillance cameras has been reviewed and persons of interest have been interviewed but no arrests have been made.

Firefighters were able to extinguish a small fire July 4, at 800 S. Main St., before it caused extensive damage to the vacant factory. Officials say it does not appear to be the work of an arsonist and was likely started by a homeless person.

“We attributed it to a campfire–a warming or cooking fire,” Knott said.

The fires involve a multi-jurisdictional investigation and have cost the Rockford Fire Department approximately $10,000 in overtime.

Lawsuit dismissed for now

A defamation lawsuit filed earlier this month by Jeff Orduno, attorney for Fern, Hanley Lofts LLC and Urban Equity Properties, has been dismissed without prejudice by a Winnebago County judge. The complaint was filed against nine people after a host of Facebook and online forum comments included allegations that Fern was responsible for the Hanley fire.

Although the suit has been dismissed, it does not mean the case has been thrown out. The dismissal occurred after Orduno filed a motion to amend the complaint, July 7. He is now able to add parties and refile the suit on another date.

Fern hoped to start turning the Hanley building into an apartment complex with a ground-floor restaurant later this year. City officials say the legwork to begin that project was underway before the blaze that destroyed the 1901 building. R.

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