January 2004

Investigators seeking ‘smoking gun’ in Mancos fire

By Suzanne Strazza

The gaping black hole on Grand Avenue in Mancos has been there for so long, most folks don’t even notice it any more. Seven months after the old Bounty Hunter store and Nathaniel’s hat shop burned beyond repair in a likely arson-caused blaze, no one has been found guilty in the incident and the investigation has largely fizzled out.

But the arrival of a new, interim marshal in the town may reignite the probe into one of the largest fires in Mancos’ recent history.

At 2:56 a.m. on May 29, dispatchers received a 911 call reporting a fire in the 100 block of Grand Avenue, in buildings owned by a family corporation, Mitchell Properties LLLP. Fire crews responded from Mancos, Dolores and Cortez, but by the time they arrived, the flames were 30-40 feet high. The crews battled the blaze for more than two hours, and worked long into the night after that suppressing hot spots.

Shortly thereafter, investigators with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the insurance company arrived to begin their probe into the cause of the fire. Mancos Deputy Marshal Robert Whited and Fire Chief Tony Aspromonte also investigated.

The CBI brought in an arson dog, Erin, late on May 29. The dog indicated the presence of accelerants. She also responded positively to a man’s shoes, indicating there was accelerant on them as well.

The man, Mike Leroy Garlinghouse, 49, of Mancos, was detained and later charged with first-degree arson and criminal mischief, both Class 3 felonies; and second-degree burglary, a Class 4 felony. But about a week later, the charges against him were dismissed without prejudice, meaning they could be refiled if circumstances warranted, and Garlinghouse was released.

According to the affidavit of the Mancos Marshal’s Office in support of Garlinghouse’s arrest, shortly after Whited arrived at the fire scene at 3 a.m. May 29, a vehicle driven by Gary Small pulled up. With Small in the car was Garlinghouse. They were told to leave the scene.

A little later, the affidavit states, Whited saw Garlinghouse walking south on Main. He appeared to be intoxicated and said he had “just got dropped off.” Whited told him to move on.

Then Small’s wife, Evelyn, called dispatch and said that the man that had been with her husband had tried to put out the fire. By then, however, Garlinghouse could not be found.

Darrel Pickens, bartender at the Columbine Bar two doors west of the fire, arrived and told Whited that he had seen Garlinghouse sleeping in front of 119 Grand Ave., the Bounty Hunter building and point of origin of the fire, according to the affidavit. When Pickens left the bar at 2:30 a.m., he saw Garlinghouse move in his position, but he did not stand up, Pickens said. At that time there was no smoke or fire, Pickens reported.

When CBI agents brought in their arson dog around 8 that night, she made “numerous indications of the presence of an accelerant inside and in front of 119 Grand Avenue,” the affidavit states.

While she was still there, then-Marshal David Palacios was told of a man hanging out near the river behind the fire scene. Walking down there, he found Garlinghouse and asked him if he would consent to have the dog sniff his shoes. Garlinghouse said yes. He was put in a line with three other persons, and the dog indicated she smelled accelerant on his shoes, the affidavit states.

Taken to the marshal’s office and advised of his rights, Garlinghouse stated that he had been walking past 119 Grand Ave. and noticed a fire inside, so he ran in through the door, which was unlocked, and tried to put out the flames by smothering it with blankets that were inside. He said he’d gone 25 to 30 feet into the building because the fire was in the back.

However, the fire was burning too fast, Garlinghouse said, so he ran outside to two different pay phones, neither of which worked, and then to Gary Small’s residence to call 911. Officers later said there was nothing wrong with the pay phones.

Garlinghouse was arrested May 30 and advised in court June 4, but charges were dismissed June 10.

Not much has been heard about the fire since then. Whited, who performed the bulk of the Mancos Marshal’s investigation, has since moved on.

Between the subsequent upheaval in the marshal’s office that resulted in the firing of Deputy Wes Short and the resignation of Palacios [Free Press, November and December ’03] and the retirement of the CBI investigator assigned to the arson case, interest in the fire dwindled out.

But Mancos’ new interim marshal, Steve O’Neil, has picked up the ball and is running with it.

After the CBI sent Agent Roy Taylor to investigate, he took samples and evidence back to the CBI labs to be analyzed, a lengthy process, according to CBI Agent Steve Vaughn. “These things can often take a very long time,” Vaughn said.

In a phone interview with the Free Press, Vaughn explained the process of a fire investigation. The CBI is not a police agency, so it has to be invited into any investigation, which it was. When agents arrive, they take samples and evidence, and store what has been collected in paint cans until it can be returned to their labs to be analyzed. The paint cans not only keep the evidence from being damaged, but trap any gases which may evaporate.

After the analysis, the CBI determines cause and origin of the fire, reports that information back to the requesting agency and then closes the case. Unless the requesting agency asks for further assistance, the CBI’s part is complete. And in this particular case, as far as the CBI is concerned, its part is done. According to Vaughn, “The case is closed for us.”

In his affidavit, Whited said that “all accidental causes were eliminated” in the fire and that investigators had concluded it was set intentionally.

But O’Neil discussed the findings and lab report from the CBI, which he said he received Dec. 16. According to him, the report was inconclusive. The CBI investigators ruled out electrical problems but were not able to prove that the fire was or was not started intentionally, though there was a possible accelerant used.

Therefore, the next step is determining if the accelerant was something naturally found in the area or brought in.

“It could be polyurethane, a potato chip bag or dirty rags,” stated O’Neil. “We are still working on determining that information.”

The accelerant reportedly found on Garlinghouse’s shoes could have been the same accelerant, O’Neil said, if Garlinghouse did indeed run into the building and try to put out the fire with blankets. O’Neil said that on the other hand, some shoes whose soles are made from petroleum products can also appear to contain accelerants.

The damaged buildings were torn down shortly afterwards. Rebuilding has been put on hold pending the investigation.

Calls to Blake Mitchell, owner of the buildings, were not returned. Whited’s affidavit put the estimated damage at $1.5 million.

As far as Mancos law enforcement is concerned, the case is still open.

“We are trying to put the pieces together on this,” O’Neil said. “We are networking with everyone involved and we hope to come to some resolution on the case.”