Second arson fire hits local apartments
Authorities are investigating an arson fire - the second in the course of a year - at the former Wagon Wheel Apartments on Shady Oaks Circle off Highway 181 in Gainesville.
The timing of the most recent fire on Jan. 8 is interesting because it occurred just about a year after an adjacent Wagon Wheel apartment burned on Jan. 23, 2018. Both fires were ruled as “incendiary,” indicating they were set, Mike O’Connell, the communications director for the Missouri Department of Public Safety, told the Times in emails. The apartments are vacant and are owned by a lending agency, according to the Ozark County Sheriff’s Office.
This week’s sheriff’s report (see page 9) shows that the fire was first called in to a dispatcher at 8:35 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 8, by Donovan Anderson, who was reportedly walking by the apartments and saw smoke and fire inside a structure. The sheriff’s office dispatched the Gainesville Volunteer Fire Department, along with Tecumseh, Lick Creek, Caney Mountain, Timber Knob and Pontiac VFDs for mutual aid.
Deputies Kyle Hannaford and Deputy Vess Phelan were the first on scene, according to Ozark County Sheriff’s Deputy Cpl. Curtis Dobbs, who also serves as a certified fire investigator with the state of Missouri. The deputies were soon joined by firefighters who fought the flames, and the fire was officially out by 9:52 p.m., the sheriff’s report says. With the flames out, the structure was still standing, giving officers a better look into where the fire might have started. The fire marshal was called to investigate.
Dobbs said the apartments had no active electricity or gas hooked up.
Last year’s fire was first called into the sheriff’s office at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, by a concerned citizen who reported the strong odor of smoke in the area.
A deputy was dispatched but was unable to find anything burning. Officials later pinpointed the location when next-door neighbor Michael Denton saw flames coming from a window of the apartment and called the sheriff’s department to report the fire.
Gainesville, Lick Creek, Caney Mountain and Timber Knob volunteer fire departments were dispatched to the scene, along with the Ozark County Ambulance, sheriff’s deputies and the Missouri State Highway Patrol. When officials arrived, the apartment was fully engulfed.
Firefighters were unable to save the apartment, but they did keep the fire from spreading to neighboring structures that stand about 15 to 18 feet from the burned building.
Dobbs said that Bruce Durbin owned the apartment buildings until his death in September 2016. The property has been proceeding through the court system since then, and a bank had recently regained ownership of the buildings.
“There were several people living there, and they were offered a ‘cash for key’ type of arrangement,” Dobbs said, “…meaning if they agreed to clean and vacate the premises, they would be compensated, quite substantially. And some of these people weren’t paying anything to stay there to begin with. They were basically squatting.”
Reporting additional information
Dobbs asks anyone who has any information or saw anything suspicious on the night of last week’s fire to call the Ozark County Sheriff’s Department at 417-679-4633.