Home News Local news Meada's Mall Fire Likely Sparked by Racial Tensions

Meada's Mall Fire Likely Sparked by Racial Tensions


Sept. 2, 2005 –– A fire early Friday morning that gutted the interior of Close Reach Imports is under investigation, Deputy Fire Chief Brian Chapman said at the scene. The store, located at Meada's Mall in the heart of Cruz Bay, is owned by Bob Sells.
"The downstairs is a total loss," Chapman said.
The upstairs units were unoccupied, but suffered smoke and water damage.
This is the latest in a series of incidents that appear to be racially motivated.
Early Thursday, someone set fire to Sells' Jeep, which was still parked in front of the store Thursday morning. That incident is also under investigation.
The problems at Close Reach Imports appear to have their roots in a feud between Sells and House of Dolls owner Esther Frett. Until she was evicted in June, she had her store at Meada's Mall upstairs from Close Reach Imports.
Sells is white and Frett is black.
On June 3, Sells was arrested on assault charges after he allegedly pushed her. Sells said Thursday that case is still pending.
On June 20, someone wrote racial epithets on a car and fence at the East End home of Esther Frett and her husband, Jerry. No one has been arrested in this case.
Then, on Tuesday, Frett was allegedly raped. While Police Commissioner Elton Lewis stopped short of saying Frett was a rape victim at a Wednesday meeting in Cruz Bay Park, he called her a crime victim. The incident was reported on the Cruz Bay police blotter as a first-degree rape.
In regard to Friday's Close Reach Imports fire, Chapman said that someone banged on the fire station door to alert firefighters to the fire at about 3 a.m.
"When the men got here, it was fully involved downstairs," he said.
He said the men contained the fire and waited for daylight to rake over the coals.
Deputy Police Commissioner Angelo Hill would not confirm that arson was involved because he said the investigators were still on the scene.
Police resources were taxed even further Thursday when it appears someone tried to set a fire at Skinny Legs Bar and Restaurant in Coral Bay.
"I came in and noticed ashes and thought I smelled something," owner Moe Chabuz said Friday.
He said the floor varnish had also bubbled up. He said it looked to him like someone used fuel to start a fire. He said the building was not damaged.
Chabuz, who is white, was puzzled as to why someone would target his bar. However, the bar's name has come up several times at public meetings where the Frett issues were discussed. In 1993, someone allegedly murdered a black man named Peter Smith who drifted in to Coral Bay. His body, dressed in woman's clothing, was left at Skinny Legs. Authorities have never solved the murder several people complained at recent public meetings.
While the fires appear to be targeting white business owners, both the Skinny Legs and Close Reach Imports buildings are owned by native St. John families.
Chabuz said his building is owned by Wall Street Enterprises, a company formed by the heirs of the late Fred Smith.
Theodora Moorehead said that the Close Reach Imports building is owned by the Moorehead-Keating families, which own a good chunk of downtown Cruz Bay real estate.
Moorehead questioned whether the Police and Fire Departments will be able to keep up if situations like this continue.
"It's very incendiary. What if there's one, two, three fires in one evening," she said.
Hill said he has been assured that he'll have the resources to keep the situation under control.
Moorehead disagreed. She said it appears the police are not up to the task of controlling this fast escalating situation.
She suggested that the police should have kept a careful eye on Close Reach Imports given the fact that Sells car went up in flames the night before.
To add fuel to the fire, Jam Band is scheduled to play Friday night at Sputnik Bar in Coral Bay.
"They attract a rough crowd," Moorehead said.
Hill said that his officers will be there and intervene "at the first sign of anything that doesn't make sense."
Moorehead said the community has to deal with its racial tensions.
"Or the lowest common denominator is going to prevail. This will turn out to be worse than St. Croix," she said, referring to the 1972 Fountain Valley murders.

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