By Shane Nicholson
ROCKFORD — A string of arsons that rocked downtown through the end of June and first week of July is still under investigation.
Three fires, one at the former Hanley Furniture building and two on South 7th Street, were pegged by local, state and federal investigators as likely arsons. City officials in the aftermath said a fourth fire on South Main Street was not under suspicion.
Investigators said the manner in which two of the blazes were started, the Hanley fire and one of the 7th Street incidents, shared some similarities, including where the fires began in the structures and the accelerant used. The Hanley fire started just before 1 p.m. on Sunday, June 25, in the northwest corner, opposite the BMO Center.
Firefighters fought the blaze for hours in front of onlookers, including the building’s owner, Urban Equity Properties’ Justin Fern. The building was ultimately demolished over the next week amid a series of legal maneuvers and public spats.
The two 7th Street buildings were also demolished in the days that followed. Investigators credited the controlled demolition of the structures with aiding in their work. Rockford Fire Division Chief of Administration and Fire Prevention Matt Knott said that the contractors used by the city were well versed in such investigations and key partners in working the case.
“(Controlled demolition) is a technique we’ve used before and we’ll continue to do so,” Knott told reporters last month. “In no way, shape or form does a controlled demolition impede our investigation. It actually helps us. It allows us to get into these buildings safely and effectively.”
City officials this week said that there had been a person of interest identified in the investigation but declined to say whether that person was still a target for investigators. Officials also would not disclose whether a suspect in the case was in custody.
Sources told The Times that investigators had sought out video and records from nearby gas stations, looking for customers who had made small purchases of gasoline around the time of the fires. Surveillance video had also been collected from the scenes of the arsons during the open days of the investigation. Officials indicated in July that information culled from those videos had yielded leads for investigators.
City officials say they are still seeking any tips and information related to the suspected arsons. R.