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DREAMS THAT WON’T DIE – UNDAUNTED, HABITAT VOLUNTEERS TO REBUILD HOUSES HIT BY ARSON

DREAMS THAT WON’T DIE – UNDAUNTED, HABITAT VOLUNTEERS TO REBUILD HOUSES HIT BY ARSON

Rocky Mountain News (CO) – Tuesday, July 20, 2004
Author/Byline: Joe Garner And Clayton Woullard, Rocky Mountain News
Edition: Final
Section: News
Page: 5A
Tomas Landin helped volunteers clean up what was left of his future home Monday, almost a week after it was destroyed in a blaze.

Sweat soaked Landin’s ash-smudged face as he walked through charred dreams and carried heavy loads of it to the dumpster with the help of three volunteers. He was sad to have to do it, but he was happy people were willing to help him.

“I’m sad, but when I saw the truck come with the big machine, I was happy,” Landin, 44, said.

Duran Excavating brought heavy machinery to the Habitat for Humanity site Monday to help remove the charred materials and will work throughout the week.

Ron Gross, construction manager on the Habitat project, said the company will begin to rip out the foundation today, and hopes to be able pour a new one next week.

“There’s a few bumps in the road,” Gross said, “but thank God they’re not too big we can’t get over them.”

Two doors down, another home being built by Habitat for Humanity as low-income housing was torched Saturday.

Gross said that home, which Valerie Hernandez, 35, and her family planned to move into, will also be rebuilt, but the foundation won’t need to be replaced.

An accelerant found in the ruins of both homes led investigators to conclude the fires were arson.

Last Wednesday, a third home, being erected by the Greeley Urban Renewal Authority, caught fire. Workers saved it, but investigators again found evidence of the same petroleum-based accelerant.

“An amateur could be successful with an accelerant like that,” said Dale Lyman, spokesman for Union Colony Fire/Rescue. “Or someone who knew what they were doing.”

Despite leads and tips, the Greeley Police Department “has nothing to report,” said spokesman Sgt. Dave Beckmann Monday.

Absent arrests or declared suspects, the fires have become crimes of conjecture.

“There’s all kinds of speculation, but the majority of people don’t think it’s racial,” said the Rev. Bernie Schmitz, pastor of Our Lady of Peace Roman Catholic Church. “I’m not hearing anyone even suggest there was anything racial about them.”

All three fires were within about three blocks of the church, a hub of Hispanic life on the north side of Greeley.

The priest said speculation is that the fires might have been set by someone rejected by Habitat for Humanity for the five homes under construction in the Hispanic neighborhood. In all, 61 homes are to be built in the next decade.

Other speculation is that the fires might have been set in a gang initiation, the priest said. And authorities have theorized the serial fires might have been set by a prankster or by a firebug, someone who sets fires for gratification.

Officials at the international headquarters of Habitat for Humanity, in Americus, Ga., said arson at Habitat sites is so unusual that records are not kept.

“We’re like any other large builder: We have fires at construction sites every now and again,” said Habitat spokesman Joedy Isert. “We’re aware of the fires when they happen, but that’s sometimes all we know about them.”

Habitat has built 150,000 homes worldwide since it was organized in 1976, including 55,000 homes in the United States, Isert said. Houses damaged during construction typically are rebuilt, he said.

A computer search of newspaper stories found racial motivation for a Dec. 17, 2003, fire at a Massillon, Ohio, structure that Habitat had half-finished. Other fires have been reported at Habitat homes from Wareham, Mass., to Kansas City, Mo., with the cases typically under investigation for weeks. Arson has sometimes been suspected, but the violence endemic in inner-city neighborhoods also has been considered the reason for the fires.

In Greeley, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation will remain part of the investigation team for as long as necessary, said agency spokesman Pete Mang.

“Obviously, we want to solve it sooner rather than later,” Mang said.

Jerry Means, an arson investigator for CBI, said he was impressed when he saw Landin and the other volunteers cleaning up the site.

“You can’t keep good people down,” Means said. “It has to be extremely painful to be carrying your dreams, and then throwing them in the dumpster.”

Tom Chagolla, executive director of Greeley Area Habitat, said Monday the fires have motivated the organization and the volunteers even more, and they hope to have both houses rebuilt on schedule by mid-September.

“Instead of devastation, I see progress,” Chagolla said. “We’re not going to let this stop us.”

He was also impressed with Landin’s dedication.

“He could say, ‘I give up,'” Chagolla said, looking over at Landin cleaning the debris. “But he knows this is progress too.”

INFOBOX

Possible arsons

Other suspicious fires at Habitat for Humanity homes:

* October 2001: A gasoline bomb was hurled at a home under construction in a Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood being reclaimed from drug dealers. Damage was estimated at $500, but the home was occupied by March 2002.

* July 2001: Arsonists poured gasoline throughout a home being built for a woman and her disabled daughter in Wareham, Mass. Damage was estimated at $30,000.

* December 2000: A homemade sign with racial overtones was found on the lawn of a home damaged by fire in Massillon, Ohio.

* September 2000: A person was seen running from a home just before it burned to the foundation in Canton, Ohio.

* October 1999: A home in Huntsville, Texas, was gutted on Halloween.

* July 1998: Gang activity was suspected in fires that caused $25,000 damage to two homes in Kansas City, Mo., that were being updated for new residents after the original owners had moved out. Arson was also suspected in a third fire at another vacant home nearby.

* July 1996: Arson was suspected in a fire that destroyed a home in Alexandria, Va..

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