Residents of a North Toledo apartment building, where two firefighters died Jan. 26 fighting what investigators allege was a purposefully set fire, said actions by the building's owner that day seemed suspicious, in retrospect.
The owner, Ray Abou-Arab, 61, was arraigned on Monday in Toledo Municipal Court on two charges of aggravated murder and two charges of aggravated arson. Retired Judge Denise Ann Dartt ordered that Mr. Abou-Arab be kept in the Lucas County jail. Judge Dartt set bond at $5 million, with bond for each murder charge at $2 million, and each arson charge at $500,000.
Mr. Abou-Arab of 1311 Sierra Dr. in Oregon is accused of setting the fire at a two-story apartment building he owned at 528 Magnolia St. Two firefighters — Privates Stephen Machcinski and James Dickman — were pronounced dead later that day at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center after being rescued from inside the building, where they had become trapped.
Police allege Mr. Abou-Arab entered the building’s garage, remained there for more than a minute, left, and then entered a storefront at the same location, according to court documents. After he left the garage, the documents state, an occupant of an adjacent unit noticed a wall was on fire.
After the hearing, residents recalled actions by Mr. Abou-Arab that at the time did not seem to them suspicious but do now.
Tracy Bishop, who said she has lived at 528 Magnolia St. for about two years, said she saw flames along a wall of her unit next to the garage soon after she heard the garage door open and close. Residents said they regularly could hear neighbors talking or the television through the apartment’s thin walls.
Upon seeing the flames, Ms. Bishop said she ran out of her apartment and into the market where she saw Mr. Abou-Arab coming from a back room.
“I was hysterical. And ... he just told me to calm down, calm down. I’m like, ‘What do you mean calm down, the apartment’s on fire,’” she said.
Ms. Bishop said she spoke to 911 officials, and the building owner offered her water.
“I told him, I said, ‘I heard somebody in the garage.’ He’s like, ‘Tracy, you didn’t hear nobody in the garage.’ I said, ‘Yes, I did.’ ... When that garage door goes up and shut it’s like it’s in my apartment. Don’t tell me what I know,’” she said.
Ms. Bishop said she and Mr. Abou-Arab walked around to the side of the building to the garage doors. She said he took her to one of the doors and tested it, showing her how it was locked.
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Another resident, Patricia Rollins, said she commented to people at the scene that she could smell kerosene.
“Ray was right there and he said, ‘Shh, shh, be quiet, don’t be saying that, don’t be saying that,’” Ms. Rollins said.
Ms. Bishop said she can’t imagine what would prompt the alleged arson.
“He was cool, nice guy, I mean really. This just tells ... how much you really know somebody,” she said.
While the court process progresses, fire and police officials have released few details about the investigation into the blaze.
Mayor D. Michael Collins and Fire Chief Luis Santiago said at a Monday news conference they would not comment on any aspects of the criminal investigation, and police were similarly mum.
For instance, a search warrant served Jan. 27 at the fire scene, one of three warrants authorities said they filed, show police sought video and audio files and photographs. Authorities seized a digital video recorder from Huron Market, according to warrant documents.
A police spokesman declined to say whether investigators recovered video that showed the circumstances leading up to the fire.
More information about the case could be released soon, however. Jeff Lingo, chief of the criminal division for the Lucas County Prosecutor’s Office, said additional charges against Mr. Abou-Arab may be forthcoming.
James MacHarg, a public defender who is Mr. Abou-Arab’s private attorney in the case, asked during the hearing that police secure the crime scene so that defense experts can analyze any materials found there. A hearing will be held Wednesday in Municipal Court to discuss the request; police were ordered to secure the scene until then.
A pretrial hearing was scheduled for Feb. 10. Mr. MacHarg did not return a message left at his office requesting comment on the case.
Mr. Abou-Arab wore an anti-suicide smock at Monday’s hearing, a single-piece garment inmates must wear if there are concerns they may be suicidal. The smock is designed to be difficult to form into a noose, and inmates wearing them have no other clothes on, Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp said.
Sheriff Tharp said Lucas County jail staff determined Mr. Abou-Arab should wear the smock after an initial assessment at the jail.
“It’s a concern of ours so that he doesn’t commit suicide,” he said.
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The municipal courtroom was packed Monday with about 50 firefighters from Local 92 and their supporters, who met at their union hall at 714 Washington St. at 8 a.m. and walked to the courthouse. Many wore Toledo firefighters’ jackets, and several passing cars honked in support.
President Jeffrey Romstadt said the union asked its members Sunday night to participate in the sidewalk procession.
“The idea behind this is just making sure that we have a presence there,” he said. “Usually family show up for arraignments to make sure that things happen correctly, and we’ll be there to give our support to fallen brothers.”
Mr. Romstadt said firefighters felt anger, sadness, and other emotions since late last week, when Mr. Abou-Arab was arrested.
“This is America. People are innocent until proven guilty. We are just going to be here with the family members. Steve and James were our family members. They’re our brothers, and we will be at the courtroom for them,” he said.
Chief Santiago expressed similar views at the news conference, saying the Toledo Fire Department would respect the criminal justice process. But that doesn't mean firefighters aren't angry.
“It has unleashed a negative emotion,” he said. “I’m not lying about that.”
The chief said the fire department will conduct an investigation into the circumstances and conditions leading up to the firefighters' deaths. It will take at least 30 days.
Though leaders wouldn’t comment on the investigation, city officials did laud the outpouring of support firefighters and the victims' families have received since the fire. Mayor Collins and Chief Santiago thanked businesses, churches, hospital staff, and residents for support.
“I have the utmost privilege of serving in a community that has demonstrated the compassion that has been demonstrated in the past week,” Mayor Collins said.
Firefighters focused on Mr. Machcinski and Mr. Dickman and their families in the days after the fire, said Dan Desmond, the union’s vice president. He said he hopes their loved ones find peace and said the fire department has been bolstered by the public’s support.
American Red Cross of Northwest Ohio helped seven adults and two children with food, clothing, and three nights of shelter following the fire. Some of those who received help lived in a nearby structure damaged by the fire.
Ms. Rollins said she’s been staying at a hotel, but she’s running out of money to pay for the overnight stays and doesn’t know where she’ll find shelter.
The Toledo-Lucas County Victim-Witness Assistance Program has contacted nonprofit organizations to arrange help for tenants who need it.