Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Tale of Two Fires

Lee Scott Summoned

Here’s a sad coincidence. On Oct. 18, 2007, in the ancient market town of Neath, in Wales, a beloved music theatre, the Gwyn Hall, built in 1887, went up in flames. The roof collapsed and the stage was completely destroyed. The theatre had recently undergone a restoration costing about 8 million in U.S. dollars and was scheduled to reopen shortly as a community cultural and performing center. The Welsh town of about 50,000 inhabitants was extremely proud of the theatre and many people cherished memories of having been in the beautiful old brick building on one occasion or another. The building was insured and local officials promised that they would rebuild, using as much brick from the old building as possible.

A month after the Gwyn Hall fire, as we in Portsmouth know to our sorrow, the Columbia Theater, which had been restored by Lee Scott at a cost of millions of dollars and thousands of hours of labor of love by Lee, his son Eddie, and others, went up in flames about 3 AM, on November 11. The roof collapsed and the stage was completely destroyed, but the damage would be at least partially covered by insurance, and Scott promised to rebuild.

Those are the similarities, but there are important differences between the two theaters and the two fires. The town government of Neath had backed the restoration of Gwyn Hall from the start. Nobody raised objections to the costs of restoration. Almost everyone recognized that the theater was an architectural treasure that would play an important role in the economic revitalization of downtown Neath. In Portsmouth, because Scott was not part of the clique that controls the city economically and politically, the clique that has never served their time, every obstacle was put in the way of the restoration of the Columbia. I interviewed Scott for The Recall of Mayor Bauer, a video essay I put together in the summer of 2005. In that interview, conducted inside the Columbia, he described some of the roadblocks Mayor Bauer and the city government had thrown up to stop the restoration.

Columbia Interior

Wires Crossed

In a recent conversation I had with Scott, he said the city back in the Bauer administration had rejected the plans he had made for rewiring the theater. A city inspector insisted that Scott do the wiring another way, even though Scott believed the plans he had were safer and in closer compliance with state codes. Whether it was more of the same obstructionism he had faced from the start or just the typical incompetence of public employees, many of whom owed their jobs to political connections, the wiring plan Scott had been told he must follow may have been the indirect cause of the fire, which probably started in the electrical control room near the stage. The city government had been determined from the start to stop Scott from restoring the Columbia. A couple of years after Mayor Bauer and other city officials had been recalled from office, thanks in part to Scott’s campaigning, they may have succeeded, in absentia, in achieving their goal. The fire may have resulted from the wiring Scott did not want installed.

The arson verdict was apparently based on trained dogs sniffing some flammable residue in the wreckage. Scott said it’s too bad the dogs couldn’t speak, because maybe they could have said that the inflammable substance residue they were smelling was very old. Like from the age of the Hollywood wonder dog Rin-Tin-Tin. Unless someone confesses, it is hard to believe anybody could be convicted on the basis of the dogs’ noses. Rin-Tin-Tin, who romped across the screen at the Columbia in the 1920s, would no doubt have been able to catch the arsonist in the time it took to run a three-reeler, but Horner and his CSI crew are going to need more time than that, and then maybe no amount of time will be enough. Only 15 percent of arson cases result in an arrest, and the odds are probably less than that for our local constabulary. Remember how long the Journeys were running a chop-shop/oxycontin operation less than a mile from the Portsmouth Police Station. Only when other police in the tri-state area got involved was that operation put out of business.

I dropped by the Columbia around noon, on Tuesday, November 27, to take some photos of the devastated interior. As I walked from the parking lot behind the Columbia, I saw a couple of vintage pickups and a dumpster in back of the theater. About a half dozen men were working to remove debris from the theater and hauling it away in the pickups. Lee Scott and his son Eddie were two of those working hard on the clean-up. During the early stages of the restoration of the Columbia, I had a number of times witnessed the two of them working very hard. Among the things that make the two of them different in Portsmouth is that they are workaholics, a rare disorder among Portsmouth natives, especially among those employed in the public sector. If there was a Workaholics Anonymous chapter in Portsmouth, Scott and Eddie would be charter members. “Hi. My name is Scott and I’m a workaholic.” Of course, Scott is also an ex-convict and suspicions have been raised in the city, if not encouraged, that he is somehow responsible for the fire. In a bizarre rumor, it was even reported Lee’s lawyer wife had been arrested for arson.

In Neath, Wales, after an examination of the burned theatre, fire and police officials said they did not know the exact cause, but said they found nothing to make them believe it might have been set. In a striking contrast, Police Chief Horner was at the rear of the Columbia early Sunday morning gruffly warning people who got too close that they were at a crime scene and had better retreat if they did not want to get arrested. Every fire is a potential crime scene until the cause can be determined, but Horner acted as if he was guarding a crime scene, and that arson was the likely cause. I don’t remember any police guarding Ken Rase’s office after the fire there, a few years back, even though there was reason to think it might be related to the Marting scam. I think Horner’s behavior on the morning following the fire might be a clue to understanding what has transpired since. I am not implying Horner had anything to do with the fire, though there are those who would not put it past him. I think Horner is an even more unlikely suspect than Scott or his wife. What I am suggesting is that when state and federal officials got involved with the investigation, they were dealing with a local police chief who was already inclined, if not hell-bent, on getting this fire ruled arson.

Why would Chief Horner be so inclined? Because Horner, like President Bush and General Musharraf of Pakistan, uses fear and terror as a way of maintaining control politically. A ridiculous instance of this technique was his labeling as “domestic terrorists” those concerned citizens, the majority of them aged 50 to 80, who were active in working for the recall of elected officials. If people think there are terrorists and arsonists in their community, they are going to give presidents, generals, and police chiefs every benefit of the doubt. Recall that one of the things Horner did when Mayor Bauer was rumored to be close to firing him was to accuse Bauer of committing a criminal act in connection with the purchase of the Marting Building. Bauer was recalled as a result of the Marting scam, and Horner kept his job. But since competence is not the basis on which Horner’s tenure as chief rests, he has to keep people worrying about public enemies and playing on paranoia. The cross-dressing director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, was the master at this game, holding on to his job for 48 years, spanning eight different presidencies. He kept files on those politicians who had the authority to fire him.

Lee Scott has been a constant critic of the city government and of Horner in particular. Scott has accused Horner of trying to shake down downtown merchants by requiring them to pay $200 a month for extra protection. Councilman Mearan, who can certainly speak with authority on crime, was quoted in the Daily Times as saying about ten merchants, including himself, were paying $200 per month for an off-duty officer to patrol downtown. There is a name for such a scheme: it is called a protection racket. That a local merchant, Terry Ockerman, is being given credit for coming up with the scheme is no assurance that Horner had nothing to do with it, because that same carpetbagging Ockerman is a sidekick of Mayor Kalb, who generally does what Horner wants him to. And Horner wants to get Lee Scott, and the Columbia fire may provide the terrorist/arsonist angle he needs to work with.

I was inclined to suppose from the start that the fire was an accident. The odds alone favor such a supposition. The FBI report for Portsmouth showed among the many fires in 2005, just one them was ruled arson. The FBI did not publish any crime statistics for Portsmouth for 2006, arson or otherwise. Does that mean whoever is supposed to supply the crime statistics for Portsmouth failed to do so? Is that Horner’s way of cutting down on crime in Portsmouth, by not reporting it? In any event, arson is an uncommon occurrence in our otherwise crime-ridden city. The national arson rate is about half of what it was ten years ago, and over half of arsonists turn out to be juveniles.

Campaign of Harassment

The long campaign of harassment and intimidation against Scott has not stopped just because the Columbia burned down. Scott told me that the city has given him only thirty days to clear up the wreckage of the Columbia or it would be torn down. As much wreckage as there is in the Columbia, it seems it would require a little more than thirty days to clear out. Thirty days is what the city charter allows a property owner to repair a sidewalk, but the city granted Clayton Johnson sixty days to repair his. Johnson took his time in meeting the sixty day deadline, as I reported in a previous blog, but from what I could see on November 27, Lee and his small crew were working feverishly to meet the thirty-day deadline.

When I was leaving the Columbia on November 27, and heading toward my car in the parking lot, I saw a Portsmouth police officer approach Scott. He told Scott that the dumpster in back was in violation of a city ordinance. Scott told the officer he had called the mayor’s office the day before and learned he needed to give the city forty-hour notice before placing a dumpster. Scott said he offered to move the dumpster for forty hours, but he was told he didn’t need to do that. So he thought he had approval for the dumpster, but then the police officer appeared with the summons, which Scott holds in photo at the left. The officer said he was acting under orders from Horner. Whether or not Neal Hatcher notifies the city forty hours in advance for all the dumpsters he places on streets throughout the city, where they sometimes sit for ages, is beside the point, the point being that Scott said the mayor’s office gave the OK to his dumpster.

Meanwhile, over in Wales . . .