Police Fail to Probe Arson, Yet City Moves to Condemn Torched Building

The frustrating situation for attorney Jonathan Beck echoes recent city actions towards Bar:PM

click to enlarge Jonathan Beck thinks he knows who set fire to his office, but police don't seem interested. - RYAN KRULL
Jonathan Beck thinks he knows who set fire to his office, but police don't seem interested.

Attorney Jonathan Beck has lived and worked in the City of St. Louis for almost 20 years — but a recent letter from the city's Building Division has him for the first time mulling taking his business elsewhere. 

Beck's office has been on the corner of Magnolia and Arkansas avenues in Tower Grove East since 2011 (and has been in the neighborhood since 2004). Last week, on Wednesday night, the building burst into flames. The fire, captured on a nearby surveillance camera, shows the flames steadily build for a little more than a minute before suddenly bursting out over the sidewalk. 

Beck says he is pretty sure he knows who set the fire and he has passed that person's information along to the police. So far he's gotten nothing from them.

"We're waiting on the police to go there and take samples," Beck says, alluding to the possible presence of an accelerant like gasoline. "Which maybe they'll do, maybe they won't do. We have a potential piece of evidence that needs to be fingerprinted. No response from the police on that."

A video shows the shocking blaze:

However, Beck says there is one city agency that has taken an interest in his burned-down law office. 

At 10:30 a.m. the day after the fire, a building inspector conducted an inspection of the property and hit it with eight violations, including missing windows, missing doors, interior debris and fire damage. 

The Building Division then sent Beck a notice of condemnation, stating that because the property has "unsightly and hazardous conditions," Beck has until Sunday to have the issues "repaired or removed." If he fails to do so, according to the letter, the city will have the issues "abated by demolition work and/or whatever work deemed necessary" at a cost footed by Beck, plus a 10 percent administration fee.

The letter was originally mailed to the burned-down building and then had to be forwarded, meaning that he didn't actually get it until two days ago.

"This whole thing has been frustrating, but this letter took it to an entirely new level," says Beck, who can't help but contrast the very short timeline he's been given by the Building Division and what he sees as a rather lax attitude by law enforcement.

click to enlarge Beck's building suffered serious damage. - RYAN KRULL
Beck's building suffered serious damage.

Beck has continued representing clients and has appeared in court on their cases in the days since his office burned down. Five of the six people who work in Beck's office are city residents and Beck himself has lived in the neighborhood for two decades.

'We're not just some fly-by-night people who opened a business in the city last year and expect the city to come to our rescue," he says. "We're all city lovers and one of the saddest things about this from my standpoint is I honestly question whether I want to keep my business in the city."

The Building Division’s speedy action in Beck’s case, coupled with the police department’s more lackadaisical pace, may seem reminiscent of the incident at Bar:PM, where police crashed their car into an LGBTQ business and then failed to provide police reports from the incident (along with arresting the bar’s co-owner) even as an Building Division staffer sent a letter threatening condemnation. (The city has since clarified they have no intention of condemning the building on South Broadway or closing the bar.)

A police spokeswoman said she did not have any details to share about an investigation into Beck's building.

In a statement to the RFT, St. Louis City Building Commissioner Frank Oswald says, "These letters are provided to property owners to assist in the insurance process and provide guidance on next steps. Our intention in sending these letters is to ensure that recipients are aware of the ordinance codes for the violations affecting their building, the permit requirements for repair, and their right to appeal the notice of violation."

Beck says that he understands the communication was a form letter, but he wishes other city agencies, like the police, would act with the Building Division's apparent haste. 

"I know enough to know that the city probably won't really fine me if I don't have the building restored by February 4," he says. "But for them not to, I will probably have to make a bunch of phone calls, jump through a bunch of hoops."

He adds, "It just seems like we're fighting against the city at this point. We're having to push, push, push to get the city to do anything, to get the fire department to do anything, to get the police to investigate. We don't have to push them to send me a letter threatening to fine me."

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Ryan Krull

Ryan Krull is a staff writer for the Riverfront Times. Find him on Twitter @ryanwkrull
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