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Sub store owners allege 2015 fire was started by an ‘off-duty fireman’

Banners have been hung from the former The Sub/Square Deal Records buildings related to the December 2015 fire that destroyed it.
Banners have been hung from the former The Sub/Square Deal Records buildings related to the December 2015 fire that destroyed it. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Owners of The Sub novelty store in San Luis Obispo, which was destroyed in a December 2015 fire, allege that a customer who claimed to be an “off-duty fireman” likely started the fire, and they’re holding a “photo contest” to prove the man’s identity.

San Luis Obispo fire officials have ruled the cause of the fire as “undetermined,” based on their decision to turn the property over to the owners immediately following the fire. The Sub owners Richard Ferris and Raymond Hanson have been vocal in their criticism of the San Luis Obispo Fire Department and how the city both fought the fire and handled its investigation.

Last week, the owners hung banners on the ruins of their business, which still stands at a busy corner on the 200 block of Higuera Street, offering up to $1,000 in cash for photos of firefighters entering the building to fight the Dec. 27, 2015, fire, a “fireball exploding from the front roof,” “firemen retreating from fighting fire,” and “pictures or information of off-duty fireman (self-described who we think started the fire in window box around 10:40 a.m.).”

On Friday, City Attorney Christine Dietrick wrote in an email: “The First Amendment permits people to speak, and rational reviewers can reach their own conclusions about the merits of such speech.”

This drone video shows the fire that destroyed The Sub on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015, near the corner of Marsh and Higuera streets in downtown San Luis Obispo.

Dietrick, in reference to any potential lawsuit arising from Ferris and Hanson’s allegations, wrote that her office “continues to believe that any legal action against the city related to its fire suppression efforts is meritless.”

The city, in its final investigation report on the incident, found that the fire likely started in the front section of the building near a display window and quickly spread through the building thanks in large part to the amount of combustible merchandise and materials inside.

The fire took 15 fire engines and more than 11 hours to extinguish.

Fire Chief Garret Olson told The Tribune in December that the owners requested that the city “preserve the integrity of the scene for the building owners’ insurance investigators,” adding that the building was too unstable immediately following the fire for investigators to enter safely.

Since there was no credible indication that the property was a crime scene and there were no injuries, the city honored that request, though city officials examined the exterior and interviewed witnesses, Olson said.

However, the Fire Department in its report found that employees reported a customer inside a smoke room near a front display window just moments before the fire is believed to have started. The man, who remains unidentified, is believed to have watched the scene for at least an hour after firefighters began their attack.

“Although no evidence was obtained during the investigation which linked this individual to the cause of the fire, his presence inside the smoke room at the time when the fire was first reported merits further consideration,” the report reads.

On Monday, Kjerstin Ferris, daughter of Richard Ferris, wrote in an email that the family is trying to determine that man’s identity.

“(Zero) efforts have been made to find this crucial witness to the beginning of the fire,” she wrote. “We don’t know if he’s an off-duty firefighter or not — but we know this is what he told multiple employees. He identified himself to The Sub and Square Deal employees separately as an off-duty firefighter.”

Kjerstin Ferris also provided signed declarations from two of the business’ private investigators — John Kabala, a retired arson investigator from Alhambra, and Clyde George, a retired Santa Barbara County sheriff’s sergeant.

Both men wrote that physical and photographic evidence collected from the scene indicate arson, with Kabala stating that the “heat and intensity in the early stages of the fire as presented in video footage indicate that an ignitable liquid was used to accelerate the fire.”

Kjerstin Ferris also claims that the city has refused to meet with them or examine their investigators’ findings.

“So far these letters are going nowhere — no official will even look at them,” she wrote.

She added that the owners never requested that the city stay out of the property, calling the statement an “absolute lie.”

“Not only did they never request to come into the building after the fire — we even specifically requested someone come back and investigate and were denied!” Ferris wrote. “We have no authority that could have stopped, slowed down, or in any way limited their access to a crime scene that they were in charge of.”

The city says the main retail building at 295 Higuera St. may need to be demolished, but the property owner has submitted plans to remodel and repair an adjacent building that was only slightly damaged.

The Sub, a longtime San Luis Obispo novelty business, was destroyed by fire Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015.

Matt Fountain: 805-781-7909, @MattFountain1

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