Police responded to burglary minutes before Model Mill fire, encountered "person of interest"

Becky Campbell • Updated Sep 26, 2016 at 5:33 PM

The General Mills property was burglarized early Sunday morning — about 16 hours before a two-alarm fire destroyed a portion of the defunct plant — and again just minutes before that blaze was detected by a Johnson City police officer.

Officers responded to a burglary in progress at the Model Mill around 9:17 p.m., according to Chief Mark Sirois. They encountered a man inside the building and at some point detected a fire in the structure. Sirois would not say if the officer was inside or outside when he realized there was a fire.

It was the second burglary in progress call police responded to the facility in the same day. Around 4 a.m., police responded to a burglary in progress after the prospective owner, Grant Summers, reported a trail camera inside the building captured people walking around inside.

When officers arrived, the found three men on the property. During the police investigation, officers said they found a small black bag "with a distinct odor of marijuana," a baggie — later determined to belong to one of the men — with a substance believed to be marijuana and a scale.

Police said the baggie and its contents weighed 25.67 grams.

One person was arrested on charges of misdemeanor criminal trespassing, unlawful drug paraphernalia and felony possession of a controlled substance with intent to resell, but the other two were released on citations for misdemeanor criminal trespassing.

Sirois later said police did not believe the 4 a.m. burglary was related to the fire. Dustin Whitehead is still in jail on the drug charges and while investigators haven’t spoken to the other two, Sirois said there is no indication they were involved.

After the officer notified 911, smoke billowed from the fire and could be seen for miles around. Onlookers flocked to the scene as word of the fire spread quickly through social media. Hundreds of people gathered in parking lots around the building, getting as close as police would allow, and others assembled at Founders Park to watch the scene unfold.

On Monday, vehicle traffic was steady around the block of the fire as people’s curiosity continued to draw them to the scene.

Sirois called the unidentified man police encountered Sunday night a "person of interest," who has not been charged. The man was taken to the police department for questioning, but experienced a medical episode and was taken to Johnson City Medical Center. Sirois did not say if the man was still hospitalized, or if investigators have been able to talk to him.

The fire marshal's office has taken control of the scene and, along with the JCPD, is investigating how and where the fire started. Sirois and Fire Chief Mark Scott held a joint press conference Monday afternoon to release the few details available.

"The fire marshal's office is the lead investigatory entity for fires in our city," Sirois said. "The Johnson City Police Department assists the fire marshals, as requested, in the investigative stages of the fire incident when there is the possibility of criminal charges. The fire marshals, aided by police department investigators, worked diligently throughout the night at the scene gathering evidence and conducting their investigation. This is an ongoing and open investigation, so we are limited in how much information we can share with the public."

He praised the fire department's efforts to keep firefighters and other safe.

"The Johnson City Fire Department did an incredible job responding to the scene and keeping the public safe through a determined and persistent attack. Firefighters and their supervisors again demonstrated their professionalism and competence in a challenging, and often unpredictable, environment," Sirois said.

Scott agreed with Sirois about the fire department's performance.

"They did an outstanding job," and kept the scene safe, Scott said. "We received a call at 9:26 p.m. last night for a structure fire at 500 W. Walnut St. The nearest engine company, Engine 3, when they left the facility they could see the glow in the sky (so) they knew they had a working fire. Upon arrival, the fire was through the roof at that time."

Scott said fire commanders assessed the fire and determined an outside attack was the best option, he said.

"They looked at the building, did a risk assessment and decided the best defense would be to do an external attack on the fire and not commit personnel to the inside of the building," Scott said.

"Old mill structures are notorious for having holes in the floor where conveyor belts and chutes go through, the building had a tremendous amount of smoke in it, (there was) also fire exiting the roof," Scott said. "Two ladder trucks went into operation, a couple of large master stream devices. … We were probably putting 4,000 gallons a minute on that fire."

Scott said how firefighters performed says volumes about how well prepared they were.

"That says a lot and (it's) a testimony to our firefighters, their level of training, the equipment we've been blessed to have… we have some state of the art ladder trucks and we also have the knowledge to use those," Scott said. "We have a real ability to move large quantities of water very quickly and that all came into play last night. We have an excellent working relationship with the Water Department. With a phone call, we can instantly have the pressure and volume increased in areas like where the old mill stands. That enabled us to have the flow to put that fire out."

He said the Water Department started up three auxiliary pumps at the water plant, which gave firefighters the volume and pressure they needed to battle the blaze.

"I cannot say enough about our employees, their training, to handle that job safely. Damage to the structure … you can see from the outside the roof area on the east end of the building sustained significant damage as well as that third-floor area. The other parts of the building received some water damage, but are not, other than that, affected."

City Manager Pete Peterson was equally appreciative.

“I certainly commend our firefighters on a job very well done in containing last night's fire,” Peterson said. “The fact that the mill building is still standing is testament to their training and expertise as well as our investments in equipment. It was a demonstration of what a Class 1 department looks like in action. Our Water Department did an outstanding job ensuring that the supply was available to aid in suppression efforts. I want to also thank the police officers who quickly called in the structure fire and are working diligently with our fire marshals to investigate the cause. It's been a great team effort by many members of our organization.”

The Chamber of Commerce owns the property, but was in the process of selling it to R&G Ventures, an incorporation of Summers-Taylor owners Rab and Grant Summers. 

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