Sign up for our free newsletter
In the early morning hours of April 30, a massive fire ripped through Eastern Market, the 134-year-old redbrick landmark on Capitol Hill. Multiple engine companies were called in to extinguish the blaze. They couldn’t stop the fire from gutting the generations-old merchant stands where meat, poultry, and produce had been peddled. Nor could they prevent the flames from puncturing the market’s roof. It all proved devastating, causing an estimated $20 million in damages and destroying 14 businesses.
When the smoke cleared, Dennis L. Rubin, then D.C.’s acting fire chief, told the media that he was “90 percent” sure the fire was accidental, most likely the result of an electrical problem. Over the following weeks, with public interest in the fire still high, Rubin stood by his original assessment in interviews and at a hearing of the D.C. Council.
Within months, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives submitted its own findings to D.C. Fire and EMS and came to a different set of conclusions.
ATF agents listed the cause of the fire as “undetermined,” according to a copy of the report obtained by Washington City Paper. Although that’s not an atypical conclusion for a fire still under investigation, the report rules out faulty wiring as the source of the blaze. Near the end of a series of more than 70 bullet points outlining the agents’ investigation, the report concludes, “All evidence of electrical activity found during this investigation was a victim of the fire and not its cause.”
To some fire officials, the ATF’s findings weren’t exactly eye-popping. They suspected as much early on, and some investigators were angry about Rubin’s presentation to the media. They thought it was a bad idea, a rookie mistake for a chief who’d yet to be sworn in.
“ATF was pissed off that the department stepped out there,” says one Fire and EMS employee who did not want his name printed. “The fire department stepped out before anyone. We’re going, ‘What the fuck? We haven’t even finished it yet.’”
On the day of the fire, in fact, a braintrust of fire officials and investigators were finding evidence at odds with Rubin’s stated claims.
They were zeroing in on a Dumpster and a trash compactor. The two were located in an alley running behind the market.
The trash compactor was plugged into a nearby socket and sustained only minimal damage, basically a melted lid. It was still filled with trash at the time of the examination, according to the ATF report.
It was the Dumpster that raised alarm bells. A burned scar went up the wall from the Dumpster, which was also severely scorched. At the time, it looked empty. Investigators were told that its contents had disintegrated in the fire, the report states.
The ATF report goes on to argue that the damage to the wiring of the trash compactor is “consistent with the fire attacking” the cable. It also states that “the fire extended up the west wall [the location of the Dumpsters] into the wood rafters and through the roof. The roof partially collapsed causing substantial fire damage and subsequent drop down debris.”
The ATF wrote in its conclusion: “Based on all available information…the fire originated near the west wall.”
Investigators, according to the fire department employee and the ATF report, also noted another clue about the fire: the second 911 call that came in that morning. The man who made it had been circling the neighborhood looking for a parking spot when he cut through the alley and spotted the fire. The report says the caller saw “both the dumpster and the inside of the Eastern Market on fire” and went on to describe the scene as one big fire “approximately 3 feet above the dumpster and to the Eastern Market.” In an interview with City Paper the morning of the fire, Makan Delrahim, the 911 caller, reported: “I guess by some fortunate accident I said, ‘I’m gonna go down the alley to get back on C Street,’ and then I noticed the trash bin. At first I didn’t think it was that big a deal. Then as I got closer, I thought, Oh my God, this is not looking good.”
By that afternoon, the investigators had a theory. “We already had a good idea that this was not going to be electrical,” says the fire department employee. “We were already contemplating this could be an outside fire.”
Investigators also revisited another fire that night. Roughly 15 minutes after firefighters were dispatched to Eastern Market, a fire was reported in the back of the Cosi at 3rd and Pennsylvania Avenue SE. It was a Dumpster fire.
“What are the odds that there were two Dumpster fires on Capitol Hill on the same day?” the fire department employee recalls thinking.
Was the Eastern Market fire arson? In interviews, three department employees familiar with the case say it is impossible to rule out. “I don’t think the intent was to burn Eastern Market. There might have been somebody there that lit a Dumpster fire. You can’t rule it out,” says a department official.
“No doubt,” says another, who did not want his name printed for fear of retaliation. “Even if we do not know the cause, we’ve ruled out all the other causes.”
D.C. fire officials remain convinced that their original take on the Eastern Market fire has withstood subsequent scrutiny. Department spokesperson Alan Etter told the Hill Rag in its November issue that “anyone who knows anything about fires will tell you that it was electrical.”
Rubin’s conclusion remains the same. However, the chief admitted to City Paper he hadn’t read the ATF report.
Rubin says he is simply relying on the assessment of Deputy Fire Chief and Fire Marshal Gary L. Palmer Jr. Even though the fire department—like the ATF—has classified the fire as “undetermined,” Palmer says he sees the cause as probably electrical. He says the only reason the ATF ruled against electrical was the lack of a “smoking gun.”
Still, Palmer does not rule out arson. “I don’t want to go out and say 100 percent,” that it’s not arson, he says.
Nor will he rule out an intentional Dumpster fire as the cause. “We are looking at it,” Palmer explains. “We have followed up on it. I still commit resources to it.”
In the months since the fire, officials have tried to quietly mount an investigation focusing on a rash of fires in and around Capitol Hill. Many of them happened within a block of Eastern Market and involve Dumpsters.
Soon after the Eastern Market fire, a fire department lieutenant, working on his own, organized a surveillance unit comprised of roughly four department employees. Their task was simple: Cruise Capitol Hill looking for any suspicious activity.
The lieutenant’s team, sources say, was ill-equipped, lacked experience, and operated pretty much on its own. In some department circles, it was seen as a joke, says one fire department source, or as the lieutenant’s play for a little media attention. “I stayed clear [of the team] because I didn’t want to get my name involved,” the source adds.
There was plenty of activity to monitor in Eastern Market’s vicinity. As the neighborhood has grown and gentrified, so has the number of commercial establishments. Dozens of Dumpsters line the alleyways around the streets near the charred market.
The lieutenant’s surveillance ended soon after it started, lasting perhaps a week or two.
By then, the D.C. Arson Task Force—a unit comprised of police detectives, ATF agents, and fire department investigators—had been secretly working on its own investigation. Investigators mainly stuck to preliminary work, desk work. They were looking for information on fires—times and locations, mainly—that were occurring in the Eastern Market area, plotting them out in a nine-block radius. They also tracked down unreported trash fires and canvassed sources for any information related to these nuisance cases.
Meanwhile, suspicious fires continued on Capitol Hill. At about 5:15 a.m. on Aug. 8, more than 100 firefighters responded to a blaze that had engulfed Capitol Lounge’s enclosed backyard patio. The popular bar, located along the 200 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, sustained damage to that back deck as well as to its kitchen. Joe Englert, the bar’s owner, estimates his repair costs at more than $80,000.
The fire department quickly ruled the cause of the fire to be a smoldering cigarette left in a bucket in the back of the patio.
Englert doesn’t buy that explanation. “I don’t think it was thoroughly investigated,” he says of his case. “That would have been an incredibly slow-burning fire.”
Englert notes that his Dumpster—where the fire may have started—was found against the patio’s fence. He says the Dumpster is always a couple of feet from the wall. He believes the fire was intentionally set in there and the Dumpster had been moved closer to the building.
Two department sources agree. They believe the case shouldn’t have been closed so quickly and that the findings don’t add up. “I would have rather left that undetermined and done more investigating,” says one source.
The Capitol Lounge fire did more than cause a beer garden to go up in smoke. It spread to the Trover Card Store. “We had some fire damage but extensive smoke damage,” says shop co-owner Al Shuman. “One hundred percent of our merchandise was destroyed.”
Shuman had to close the card shop for good. His family had occupied that space for more than 43 years. “It’s a heartbreaker,” he says. “It’s horrible.”
In late August, Bravado Hair Design, located directly across from Eastern Market on C Street, was set on fire. Someone broke a shop window, threw gasoline inside, and lit it up. The damage was concentrated in the basement, costing the shop $9,800, says its owner, Khadija Rahmoune. “It was very scary,” she says. “It’s still scary because they didn’t catch anybody.”
Jamie Goodwin says she saw a man “throwing little balls of burning fabric” through Bravado’s window. Goodwin and another witness, Katy Gilmore, describe the perp as a black male, about 6-foot-4, wearing a white T-shirt and sweatpants.
On Oct. 15, at least four fires lit up the Eastern Market neighborhood—one in a recycle bin behind the boutique Forecast, one on the same block inside trash cans at Tortilla Café, one behind Marty’s, a bar and restaurant on 8th Street SE, and one in a Dumpster behind the Engine Co. 18 fire station.
It was a chaotic all-nighter.
Investigators found a witness to another trash fire set that night—behind a home around the corner from Eastern Market—and got a rough description of the possible firebug: a 6-foot-1 black male in dark clothing, a bit disheveled, maybe homeless.
An investigator questioned a man walking through the alley. He was Hispanic and didn’t speak English, according to two sources. They said he appeared drunk. He admitted to lighting debris in an alley but wouldn’t cop to anything more. The sources say the fire investigator wanted to pin all the fires on the man but later relented.
That same night, another investigator did spot a man fitting the witness’s description walking near Engine Co. 18. He chased the man on foot, following him up 11th Street SE. He radioed for police and another fire investigator. The other investigator, driving an unmarked vehicle, failed to pursue the guy once he was spotted, according to sources, and the suspect got away.
After the early morning events of Oct. 15, internal records show fire investigators requested all data gathered by the original surveillance operation led by the lieutenant and his team. By that time, fire department employees say, they counted a dozen trash fires on Capitol Hill—maybe as many as 20—and still had at least one suspect at large.
Within the department, according to records, a request was made to begin a more organized Capitol Hill surveillance operation.
This time, Rubin got involved, specifically ordering up the surveillance on Oct. 18, according to those same records. Rubin promised resources would be available. He wanted a minimum of two teams working Thursday through Sunday nights; overtime expenses wouldn’t be a problem. He wanted the culprit arrested. Rubin signed off on his mandate with a “Thanks!”
The chief wanted updates on the operation every Monday, according to a fire department source and records.
When asked about the surveillance operation, Rubin replied: “May I ask who told you?” After this reporter refused to reveal his sources, the chief threatened him, saying: “I’m going to report you to the federal authorities [if you publish that].”
Several fire department employees familiar with the operation note that the surveillance is targeting an MO that could well have been responsible for the Eastern Market fire.
Investigators began by canvassing the area where the Dumpster fires were set. This foray included knocking on doors, talking to business owners, and interviewing anyone who may have a scrap of information that could lead to identifying the possible arsonist.
ATF assisted early on. “We were helping them out, reviewing a series of nuisance fires in that area,” says Mike Campbell, ATF spokesman. “We’re not going to overlook a series of fires like this.”
Jennifer Santana, the owner of Port City Java at 701 North Carolina Ave. SE, recalls an ATF agent visiting her shop. The agent, she says, wanted to ask about a black homeless man who had been harassing employees. Every day, the man had come into the shop and demanded a free coffee. Soon he would get loud and start cursing. Her employees would have to escort him outside. The man had last visited the shop three months ago.
“[The ATF agent] wanted to question him,” Santana says. “They didn’t say why they were interested in him.”
At Forecast, an employee recalls talking to fire department investigators as well. Adele Sheehan says they assured her that “they had been doing surveillance in unmarked cars.”
Rubin’s authorized surveillance team started with eight plainclothes investigators paired up in four vehicles on overnight shifts. Investigators squatted on various park benches and hung outside 7-Eleven. Others idled in alleyways for hours radioing descriptions of possible suspects in sight.
“[The investigators] set up in different areas in Capitol Hill,” says one fire department source. “From about 2nd Street SE to all the way to Potomac Gardens to down to M Street SE and way up to Lincoln Park.”
At first, sources say that the investigators believed that their suspect may be homeless, as the witness suggested. So they canvassed the area’s shelters. On one occasion, they camped out in front of the massive Federal City Shelter at 2nd and D Streets NW. On another, according to three sources, they hit a few crackhouses in the Potomac Gardens housing project at 1225 G St. SE. Both were dead ends.
But through most of those first few days, investigators would simply park their cars and study the comings and goings of the Eastern Market community, memorizing faces, learning the habits of late-night trash collectors, dog walkers, and barflies. They needed to be able to identify anyone new or unusual in the area—someone who would stick out.
All told, two source says, they stopped and questioned roughly 20 individuals.
Investigators were quickly able to identify 15 homeless people who frequented the area and sifted through the areas where they slept—including in a parking space next to one of the Dumpster fires. That second weekend, records show the surveillance netted dozens of hours of overtime expenses.
Investigators were not able to locate another suspect who had emerged—a white homeless man who hangs out at the Exxon Station on Pennsylvania Avenue SE.
They had a lot of time to think about the would-be perp. Is he a homeless guy seeking revenge on a business that refused to give him a free coffee? Is the guy just a firebug? And then, according to a source, they started to wonder whether or not the suspect was a homeless guy at all. Maybe he was just a citizen pissed about trash piling up in alleyways.
Investigators studied Craigslist and neighborhood message boards looking for clues into their possible NIMBY-as-firebug theory. And there was still the first suspect—the one who got away on foot.
Two months after the formal surveillance started, it ended. Sources say the operation lacked manpower—some investigators refused to work the detail—and resources started drying up. They believe it should have been allowed to continue. “Of course,” says one. “Most definitely.”
“The rumors have escalated since the Eastern Market fire on April 30,” wrote Etter in an e-mail, “but we simply have no evidence that there is a chain of behavior. If we had any information that would indicate someone is doing this on purpose, we’d be the first ones shouting from the rooftops, but it doesn’t serve anybody’s purpose to try and scare people.”
There hasn’t been any new work done on the possible Capitol Hill arsons since Dec. 13. All investigators are left with is a series of random dots on a map.
“The only pattern is early morning hours between 2 and 5 [when] it appears the fires were starting. Some were sporadic.…They were in that general area where trash receptacles are known to have been. Those Dumpsters were being set on fire,” says one fire department employee. “It was simple: an open flame, match, lighter put to ordinary combustibles. [He’s] just walking by and lights it up.”
Additional reporting by Arthur Delaney