Arson suspected in fire at Christian cafe

Published: Wednesday, November 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
OCALA - A tattered rug, a smoke-stained ceiling and a burned-out cash box containing several charred dollar bills are among the few remnants of an Oct. 20 fire at the office of Cafe on the Rock.
Though the hundred-year-old building's concrete exterior shows no sign of fire damage, inside a smoky residue still permeates the air and soot coats the furniture.
Dennis Lawson, fire marshal for Ocala Fire-Rescue, said authorities are investigating the blaze as arson and have sent evidence to the State Fire Marshal's forensics office in Tallahassee.
Ocala Police Capt. Jim McGowan said investigators have identified a "subject of interest," but no arrests have been made.
Police reports indicate the fire was the third attack on the cafe in four months. On May 29, someone threw an egg at the front window and left a threatening note.
"May God shut you ... down! You care not for the lost! May God take you out of the equation," the note read in part.
The cafe is a nonprofit ministry to families, offering Bible studies, concerts and other activities, said Kathy Phillips, operations manager.
On June 23, someone broke into the cafe and stole $200 in cash and a $400 check from the office cash drawer. The thief also took the shop's fire extinguisher and sprayed its contents inside.
"We're in the process of investigating it, in the process of reviewing it, and we're trying to see if all three cases are connected," McGowan said.
Meanwhile, the cafe's staff is trying to clean up the mess left by the fire and understand why it appears to have become the target of someone's anger.
Monday evening, Phillips stood among the charred ruins in the cafe's office and shook her head.
"You're standing outside looking through the slats and everything looks OK," Phillips said. "Then you come in and see this stuff and it's still smoking. I said to the fire chief, 'Who can possibly hate us this much?' "
The recent fire destroyed the office furnishings and computers, but never touched several old Bibles, even though they were inches from the flames.
Joey Wright, a volunteer, was opening the cafe at 5:15 p.m. for a Friday night concert when he noticed smoke coming through the front door. He did not enter the building but ran next door to Concord Square where Gary Linkous of Daystar Radio called 911.
Dan Kerwood, the cafe's audio technician, said Ocala Fire crews were at the scene in minutes.
"They said it was 10 minutes away from engulfing the whole building," Kerwood said.
Lawson said the fire could have been much worse.
"It's a historic building in the downtown area. It was not sprinkled and the fire alarm system was not in operation," he said.
Anyone with information concerning any of the three incidents should contact Ocala Police detective Mike Gavigan at (352) 369-7000, or CrimeStoppers at 368-STOP (7867).
A benefit to help the cafe restore items damaged in the fire is scheduled there at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9. The cafe is at 1 E. Silver Springs Blvd., across from the Downtown Square. Several local bands will perform and admission is $5 per person.

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