As the family whose downtown business was destroyed by arson one week before gathered outside the Marietta Police Department Monday to hear the news of an arrest in the case, they said they had no words for the Marietta man accused of the crime.
The family, however, and the Marietta Wine Cellars will continue on stronger than ever, they said.
"We are going to re-open," said co-owner Mary Jane Phillips. "I don't know when and I don't know where, but we will be back."
KATE YORK The Marietta Times
Marietta fire Chief Tom Dempsey addresses reporters Monday at a press conference announcing the arrest of a suspect in the arson fire that destroyed a Front Street business and damaged others last week. Marietta Mayor Michael Mullen and Marietta Wine Cellars co-owner Al Phillips and his family were gathered outside the police department to hear the news.
Marietta police announced Monday afternoon that John Christopher Fortney, 21, of 4350 State Route 530, Lowell, is being charged with aggravated arson and tampering with evidence. Fortney was already in the Washington County Jail Monday on an unrelated charge of violating his parole, for which he was arrested Friday.
Marietta police Capt. Jeff Waite said Fortney set the early morning fire March 22 to cover up a break-in. The fire destroyed the 190 Front St. building and heavily damaged the buildings housing the Riverside Artists Gallery and Front Street Deli and Bakery.
"He admits to being at the Wine Cellars in the early morning hours of March 22 and that he broke into the store," said Waite. "He also admits he came back later with an accomplice to remove more items and set the fire at that time... we believe that was done to get rid of fingerprints."
How to help
If you have information: Call the Marietta Police Department at 376-2007 or the state fire marshal's office at 1-800-589-2728.
Waite said Fortney was found with property stolen from the shop. He became a suspect when he arrived on the scene of a police interview with another person and immediately fled, police said.
"He was later interviewed and found in possession of the stolen property," Waite said.
Fortney has a previous criminal record, including charges of theft, menacing, obstructing, domestic violence and corruption of a minor.
Both charges related to the fire are felonies, with the first-degree felony charge of arson carrying a possible three-year to 10-year prison sentence and the third-degree felony charge of tampering with evidence carrying a possible one- to five-year sentence.
Arson had been suspected from the start in the blaze, said Marietta fire Chief Tom Dempsey.
"We weren't really sure at first, but when you have a fire of that size that spreads that quickly, you always suspect that," he said. "Then some pieces of evidence were found and there were some things we should have found but didn't."
Waite said the business' cash register was ultimately discovered in pieces, with part on the east side of the Historic Harmar Bridge and the rest thrown in the river.
More charges against Fortney and others are likely, according to Waite and Dempsey.
"We're going to try to pursue additional charges (due to) the injuries that occurred to the firefighters on the scene and the severe amount of damage done to both buildings," Dempsey said.
The total damage is estimated at $2 million.
Both firefighters injured are doing well, said Dempsey. One suffered a heart attack, while another was treated for smoke inhalation.
"I spoke with them earlier today," Dempsey said Monday. "They're in good spirits."
Police are still looking for information the public may have regarding the fire, said Waite, and the investigation is ongoing.
The departments credited some critical information from the public with contributing to Fortney's arrest.
"Investigators are still seeking information and encourage anyone with information to come forward," said Shane Cartmill, public information officer for the state fire marshal's office, which is investigating the fire.
A Blue Ribbon Arson Reward of up to $5,000 is available for those who provide information.