By Martin Ricard, STAFF WRITER
The Daily Review
August 2, 2007
ASHLAND — A small fire that licked a neighborhood bar here wasn’t the only thing that caused a scare early Wednesday.
A racial slur spray-painted across the side of the building has residents and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and Fire Department wondering if a hate crime also was involved.
Investigators have ruled out that the fire was racially motivated, and it was determined that the blaze was accidentally set by a bar employee who was smoking a cigarette.
But the Sheriff’s Office and Fire Department are now working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to determine whether the racial slur was intentional or if the employee wrote it to cover up his own mistake.
“The bar down there is a neighborhood bar, and sometimes people don’t think when they put up racial things,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Scott Dudek. “But the employee is not facing charges. We’re convinced he justpanicked after he set the building on fire by accident.”
Although the fire was relatively small, a racial slur was painted in black upper-case letters shocked the nearby neighborhood — a predominantly African-American bedroom community of single-family homes with a diverse mix of working-class families.
Residents and patrons of the sports lounge said nothing like this had ever happened before in the area.
“This is despicable,” said Barbara Robb, a nearby resident and longtime customer of the Sports Fan Bar and Lounge. She said there was a murder in the area several years ago, but the neighborhood has remained quiet since then. “Other than that, everybody’s been cool.”
Jack Elwood, manager of the Plaza Bottle Shop and Market convenience store next door, said residents don’t always appreciate all the unsavory activity the bar attracts. But he didn’t think someone from the area would go so far as to tag the building with a racial slur.
“I don’t think anybody from this neighborhood would do anything like that,” Elwood said. “It’s a shock to me.”
Firefighters received a call about 3 a.m. reporting a one-alarm fire at Sports Fan, 15294 Liberty. A sheriff’s deputy who was driving in the area smelled smoke and immediately contacted the Fire Department, said department spokeswoman Aisha Knowles.
The blaze was contained 10 minutes after firefighters arrived at the scene. The building sustained “moderate to heavy” damage, Knowles said.
While investigating the fire, officials found the racial slur on the wall. But investigators believe the epithet was written within the past 24 hours because an officer who patrols that area said it was not there the day before.
Dudek said the bar employee who accidentally started the fire frequently takes naps there overnight. He was intoxicated at the time and probably also was under the influence of illegal substances, Dudek said without specifying what kind.
After seeing his picture on television shortly after investigators got to the scene, he turned himself in, Dudek said.
The man apparently fled because he didn’t want to get scolded by the owner, whom he called his “best friend,” Dudek said he told investigators.
The man felt like he was “going to get in trouble with his mother,” Dudek said of the man’s reasoning.
The last hate crime in unincorporated Alameda County occurred in 2005. Several Castro Valley teenagers were arrested after spray-painting racial slurs on a number of garage doors throughout the community.
But Dudek said hate crime has been anathema to the Ashland community.
“It’s unusual for this area,” he said. “They just don’t have any issues because the community is so close-knit.”