Cabo San Luis fire was arson, investigators say

Charles Garciduenas walk past Cabo San Luis after fire destroyed the restaurant Wednesday morning. It was one of his favorite places to eat.  photo Jayson Mellom 3-05-10
Charles Garciduenas walk past Cabo San Luis after fire destroyed the restaurant Wednesday morning. It was one of his favorite places to eat. photo Jayson Mellom 3-05-10 The Tribune

Arson is suspected in the fire that destroyed the Cabo San Luis restaurant and damaged several neighboring businesses, San Luis Obispo fire investigators said Friday.

The fire was started against an outside wall of the restaurant Wednesday morning, fire investigator John Madden said, leading officials to believe someone started the blaze.

The owner and other stakeholders in the property have been eliminated as suspects, Fire Chief John Callahan said.

The fire caused at least $1 million in damage. The property owner, as well as owners of Cabo San Luis and Kona’s Deli, is working with insurance companies toward rebuilding.

Cabo San Luis owner Dan Harper said Friday that he did not believe the fire was set to intentionally harm him or his business.

“I have a hard time believing that someone intentionally did this,” Harper said. “My gut feeling is that it was an accident by somebody.”

Investigators said that there was nothing at the fire’s starting point that could have caused an accidental or mechanical fire and that it had to have been “human-caused.”

“The fire was set by human activity,” Callahan said, adding that a further investigation would determine if it was negligence or intentional.

Investigators say an accelerant was not used and that a smoldering cigarette did not cause the fire. Something — investigators said they did not yet know what — was placed against the outside wall, where the fire began.

Flames quickly spread up the wood-shingled exterior and into Cabo San Luis, which did not have fire sprinklers because it was built before they were required by city ordinance.

The restaurant was equipped with a heat detector and fire alarms, which signaled authorities to the fire shortly after several people called 911 to report it.

A surveillance camera from the Shell Station next door was used to confirm the starting point of the fire, but the camera did not capture a picture of anyone in the area, Madden said.

“The footage is really pixilated, but at 3:56 a.m. there is a visible orange glow,” said Madden. Cabo San Luis and surrounding buildings did not have surveillance cameras, he said.

Firefighters arrived at the Foothill Square retail complex in the 900 block of Foothill Boulevard about 4 a.m. to find the restaurant fully ablaze.

The complex — which sits on stilts — has been known to be used by homeless people who gather underneath it to get shelter from the weather.

Callahan said that it did not appear that anyone camped there the night the fire started. The San Luis Obispo fire and police departments will conduct an arson investigation to identify the responsible person or persons.

A person convicted of arson can be sentenced to up to nine years in jail.

An arson fire destroyed a Burger King restaurant that was at the Cabo San Luis site in 1984.

That fire was started by a former employee to cover up a prior theft. Investigators called the fires a mere coincidence.

Anyone with information regarding the fire is asked to call Madden at 781-7381. Anonymous information may also be provided by calling the Crime Stoppers Hotline at 549-7867.

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