Investigators say house fire at Willits was arson
A fire that destroyed a home in the Willits subdivision Jan. 12 was deliberately set, Basalt Police Sgt. Stu Curry said Sunday, but the homeowner claims the investigation was “unprofessional” and off base.
In a press release issued Sunday morning, the Basalt Police Department said investigators determined that an accelerant was poured on several points of the exterior and the fire started on the outside of the house. No suspects have been named.
Homeowner Harold “Chip” Unglert said Sunday night he agrees that the fire started outside the house, but he questioned the presence of accelerants. He said his theory is the fire started in a storage area on the southwest corner of the home that was filled with an old mattress, leaves and bark. After ignition in that storage area, he said, the flames climbed up the cedar siding and spread into the attic. That’s why the fire moved so fast, he said.
The fire broke out at 510 Lake Court on Wednesday evening. Basalt fire department was paged at about 8:20 p.m., but Unglert said his interviews with neighbors indicates the fire was spotted and reported up to 30 minutes earlier. He claimed that the fire was spotted by the son of a resident in the neighborhood that lives roughly 500 yards away. The fire was reported to authorities, he said, but because an exact address couldn’t be provided, no fire personnel were dispatched at that time.
It couldn’t be immediately verified last night if an earlier call was made to the Pitkin County Communications Center regarding a possible fire in Willits.
Unglert’s house was a total loss. The belongings of Unglert and his two renters were lost as well as the structure.
Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson asked the Basalt Police Department to investigate because of the magnitude of the damage and because of “unusual” characteristics of the fire. Firefighters believed the fire burned more rapidly than considered normal and the burn pattern didn’t follow a natural progression, according to Curry.
Basalt police officers enlisted the help of a Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) agent who specializes in arson. The agent brought a specially trained dog to the site on Thursday and Friday.
“The canine located several spots where accelerant was used,” said a statement from the Basalt Police Department. “A hydrocarbon meter was used to verify accelerant present in areas that the canine had identified.”
The CBI will test samples to determine the type of accelerant used, Curry said, but it is uncertain when the test results will be available. No containers containing a possible accelerant were found.
Unglert said he met with investigators on Friday and heard their theory about the fire being deliberately set. “That’s like a bunch of —t if I’ve ever heard some,” he said.
He didn’t feel that the CBI agent was a “professional.” Based on the summary of their findings provided to him, he said he felt the investigation was “incompetent and incomplete.”
Unglert said his meeting with a police officer wasn’t productive. He couldn’t remember the officer’s name, but said it might be Curry, who is leading the investigation. He said the officer kept asking him the same question, suggesting Unglert started the fire because of financial problems. Unglert said he refused to go to police headquarters based on his perception of their investigation.
“I feel like they’re picking on me or harassing me,” Unglert said.
Investigators found low and intense burn marks on the southwest exterior of the house, Curry said. Several positive tests for accelerant were in that vicinity, he said.
Fire experts told him it appeared that a window on that side of the house blew out and the fire was “sucked inside” because of the vast difference in air temperatures.
Only tenant Darryl Equitz was home at the time of the fire, Curry said. The fire started outside of Equitz’s bedroom, according to Curry. He told investigators that he was in the bathroom for a short while when he detected a “glow” coming from his bedroom. Equitz opened the door to find flames. His hair and beard were singed as he fled, Curry said. He escaped from the house but lost all of his possessions.
Curry said Equitz had been concerned that he might have accidentally started the fire with an electrical heater he was using in his room. When informed that the heater was ruled out, Equitz was “relieved,” according to Curry.
The other renter, Byron Calvin, lost a large amount of furniture as well as art and clothing, police said. Curry said the two renters are friends who work together.
Unglert said he has no enemies that he would consider a threat to burn his house down, and he doesn’t believe his renters were targets either.
He said all three of the house residents smoked. It’s possible that a discarded cigarette butt started the fire, he said. Another possibility is there was a bottle on the fence that surrounded the storage area, he said. That Wednesday was a sunny day. The sun going through the bottle could have concentrated the light enough to create enough heat to ignite the leaves and bark, he said.
Unglert said he had insurance on the structure but not his belongings, so he’s suffering a big loss. That eliminates financial incentive, he said.
“I’m not going to make out on this at all,” he said.
Equitz and Calvin didn’t have their belongings insured, he said, so they had no motive to start a fire.
“The idea that one of the three of us did it is farfetched,” Unglert said.
He acknowledged that he has faced financial difficulties just like a lot of folks in the construction industry. Unglert works with tile and stone.
He said the lender of his mortgage started a foreclosure action last year, but they are working on a settlement and scheduled sales have been postponed numerous times as final terms are worked out. A foreclosure sale is currently scheduled for Feb. 9, but Unglert said he had every expectation that would be postponed just like previous sales.
Curry said it is impossible for investigators to know at this point if the motive of the arson was to harm a person or to damage property. It is unknown if the person or persons responsible knew if someone was home at the time, he said.
Curry said no one has been eliminated or considered as a suspect yet in the case. He said Unglert has “not really been available” and that more questioning is needed with the homeowner. He responded cautiously when asked if Unglert is a suspect.
“We definitely need to explore that possibility but we haven’t identified any information that points to that specifically,” Curry said.
Unglert said he has been in the valley for more than 15 years and it is embarrassing to him to have newspaper articles that discuss his financial situation along with the fire in his house. It makes it seem like he is guilty, he said, when he is not. He decided to speak to a reporter Sunday to get his side of the story out.
Unglert said he has been “evasive” with police because they seem to have their minds made up on what happened.
Curry said that if someone is arrested in the case, they would potentially face a charge of first-degree arson, which is a felony. The Basalt Police Department is asking anyone with information about the fire to call them at 970-927-4316.
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