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Wounds Still Raw, One Year After Arson Fires

Hollow shell of a building on 1600 block of Park Street, site of an arson fire, September 28, 2014. (Action Alameda News)

Hollow shell of a building on 1600 block of Park Street, site of an arson fire, September 28, 2014. (Action Alameda News)

Almost one year to the date after a series of arson fires that shocked Alameda and displaced both residents and local businesses, the wounds are slow to heal.

In the wee hours of September 28th, 2014, public safety officials scrambled to respond to a series of deliberately set fires at eight locations in and around downtown Alameda, including two locations on Park Street.

Fire departments in neighboring communities sent 35 firefighters to help 37 Alameda Fire Department personnel respond to the blazes, and 15 Alameda police officers responded.

Within hours of the event, police had arrested Andrew Resto Gutierrez, then 22 years old, and Michael Stephen Petersen, then 27.

Alameda police later alleged that Gutierrez was also responsible for a rape on Park Street earlier that same month, and the District Attorney’s office added that charge.

Petersen, celebrated by a media campaign proclaiming his innocence, spearheaded by friends and family, was ultimately cleared of the arson charges after his alibi was borne out with receipts and surveillance video.

The twists in this roller-coaster ride were not yet over, however, as Petersen was subsequently charged in February of this year with possession of child pornography, based on evidence that police seized from his computer during the arson investigation.

Hollow Shell

A building on the 1600 block of Park Street, the site of one of the fires, remains a hollow shell, with the sidewalk blocked off by hoardings. That building once housed Brite Cleaners, which has relocated to the Bridgeside Shopping Center; building residents, who lived above the storefronts, have relocated too.

In an interview, Alameda Police Chief Paul Rolleri, who grew up in Alameda, told Action Alameda News, “One year later, I can still remember when I first got the call that night.

“I thought then, and I still think now, it was a unique, tragic event. I can’t remember a time seeing that many building arsons set like that at once. It stands out as a really bad night for Alameda. It’s a miracle nobody was injured or killed.

“Another minute or two, and the people living above Brite Cleaners would not have been able to get out via the stairs. They might have had to go back up stairs and try to jump down two stories.

“In some ways, people that it was a property damage fire, but, in my opinion, another two or three minutes, it could have been a multiple homicide.

“I used to take my uniforms to Brite Cleaners. The building on Park Street is still a scar. I drive by there every day – not a day goes by I don’t think about it.”

Life Moves On

Rolleri is not the only Alamedan impacted by the fire yet forced to witness the scar on a regular basis.

Saboor Zafari lost his restaurant, Angela’s, in the same blaze on the 1600 block of Park Street.

Just two Friday’s ago, on September 4th, he opened Angela’s Restaurant at a new location, at 1640 Park Street, almost directly across from the boarded-up building that was the restaurant’s previous home; he said he drives by the old location every day.

His voice slighly cracking with emotion, Zafari told Action Alameda News, “Life’s gotta move on. I’m reminded almost every day when I come in of when I got the call from the police at six in the morning saying the place was on fire. I’m still dealing with it.”

Saboor Zafari works in the kitchen at a new location for Angela's Restaurant, almost directly across the street from a prior location that burned in an arson fire, September 28th, 2014. (Action Alameda News)

Saboor Zafari works in the kitchen at a new location for Angela’s Restaurant, almost directly across the street from a prior location that burned in an arson fire, September 28th, 2014. (Action Alameda News)

Angela’s is now open seven days a week for dinner, and in the next month or so, Zafari expects to open for lunch as well. He continues to grow some of his own produce at Alameda Point, and in the coming months hopes to go “all organic.”

“The community has been very wonderfully helpful,” he said, “and we’re excited to have this place, and it looks good, and we’ll move on.”

The alleged arsonist, Gutierrez, remains in custody. His arson and rape cases have been combined, and the courts have set an October 5th date for a pre-trial hearing.

Petersen is free on $20,000 bail and his child pornography case has seen several continuances, police chief Rolleri said. Petersen has a pre-trial hearing set for September 21st, just seven days before the first anniversary of the 2014 fires.

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