Nov. 18, 2007
City, State and Federal Agencies Determine Arson Started Fire; Investigation Continues; No Arrests Made; Earlier Report Involved Search Warrant

By Tony Rutherford
Huntington News Network Writer
Portsmouth, OH (HNN) – It’s official: The fire last Sunday morning at the former Columbia Theatre on Gallia Street in Portsmouth, Ohio, has been declared arson, by multiple cooperating federal, state and city agencies, which included the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and National Response Team (NRT). Since the investigation is on-going, specific details will not be disclosed, according to the joint news release.
While the on site investigation has been completed, ATF Columbus Field Division special Agent in Charge Christopher Sadowski, “committed local ATF special agents to continue working the follow investigation” alongside the Portsmouth Police and Fire investigators and the Ohio Division of the State Fire Marshal until the “individual(s) responsible are brought to justice.”
No one has been designated a suspect in the torching of the 1912 historic theatre, where, amongst other events, the first sound motion picture --- Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer” --- premiered in the late 1920s.
According to Claudette Ferguson, a sound engineer at the Music Hall, Franklin Toland, the music hall booking agent, and a reliable source Friday, Nov. 16, stated that the fire had been determined to be arson and an arrest had been made. Lee Scott, the manager, confirmed that version of events, Ferguson said.
However, the information proved incorrect due to an apparent “ mis-worded” warrant which resulted in misunderstandings by the sources. In actuality, a search warrant for removal of evidence from the shell of the Music Hall had been served, Ferguson explained.
Elaborating on the unofficial statement concerning cut wires, a detonation device and the arrest statement, Ferguson, “yes, it was told to us last night by whom we thought was a reliable source.” The source who is close to the investigation , in Ferguson’s words, explained the error by stating “the original warrant was worded wrong[ly].”
HNN declined to print the name of the alleged arrestee until additional data could be gathered. As late as 4 p.m. Friday afternoon, November 16, Kim Ridell, public information officer for the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, told HNN via phone from Washington, D.C. that no cause has yet been established.
Officially, the Acting Fire Department Chief Duncan and Police Chief Horner said the ATF National Response Team and the state fire marshal’s office has been a real asset. “The resources and assistance by these specialists is truly appreciated; this comprehensive investigation would not have been able to be conducted without federal and state support,” said Duncan.
Sadowski told reporters “this investigation is just another example of what can be achieved when local, state and federal agencies work together.”
According to the Ohio Fire Marshal Michael Bell, the arson designation came after investigators “fully analyzed evidence gathered at the scene and the information provided in more than 50 interviews that were conducted.”
The joint announcement came from Fulton, Duncan, Horner, Scioto County Prosecutor, Mark Kuhn, and State Fire Marshal Bell.
Pending approval of the city’s building inspector, the structure will, as far as investigators are concerned, be released back to its owners and the insurers said Special agent in Charge of the ATF National Response Team (NRT) Jeffrey Fulton.
HNN will soon post clips from “Recall,” a documentary/ video essay by former Shawnee State University Professor Robert Forrey, which includes images of the Music Hall’s interior and statement of how the former city administration discouraged rehabilitation of the theatre, which the Scotts purchased from its Cincinnati owner for $1.00. The Scotts invested five to seven years of sweat equity in the restoration and about $2 million dollars.
The city administration provided a $190,000 loan to finish the Columbia. An article in the Portsmouth Times earlier this week indicated the Scott’s were “current” on the loan and that only about $140,000 of the loan had been utilized.
Although the interior has been extensively damaged, Lee Scott hopes that the Columbia can be reborn, even as a roofless outdoor, courtyard type music venue.
Previously published reports indicated the fire started in the rear of the theatre. “The complete room on the back lower side of the building is gone,” Lee Scott wrote. “That was the electrical room. The other side is still there.”
Here’s the link to the Press Release provided by ATF:

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