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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

City store allegedly looted in wake of fire

By William Kaempffer
Register Staff
NEW HAVEN
— Tens of thousands of dollars worth of cash and merchandise allegedly has disappeared from a fire-damaged downtown retailer, sometime during the weeks-long demolition at the site of the December midblock fire.
According to police, the basement storage area of the New Haven Variety Store at 91 Church St. was nearly cleaned out, with hundreds of boxes of merchandise gone. Two cash registers and an ATM on the ransacked first floor also were forced open and found empty.
“Most merchandise is stolen and all cigarettes,” owner Umedbha Patel, 67, said in broken English.
He estimated Tuesday that the stolen stock was worth between $30,000 and $40,000, although an estimate in the police report was more than twice that. The first-floor merchandise — ranging from pain killers to clothing, compact discs and bedsheets — was worth another $10,000 or more, police said.
All indications are that the thief — or thieves — got in through the open rear of the building, which was in the process of being razed in the wake of a devastating Dec. 12, three-alarm fire, police said. As demolition crews took down the rear section of the structure, which was 157 feet deep, all three stories, including the basement, were exposed at one point and secured by a fence.
How the thieves made off with so much loot without being detected remains unknown. Neither property owner Mid-Block Development nor Patel had access to the building while the city controlled it.
“My sense is it’s not the kind of thing that was pocketed by a couple of guys. This was an operation. These were large boxes and lots of them and it would have taken a crew of guys and a truck to get this done,” said property manager Alex Marathas, who works for Mid-Block Development. He had been in the basement prior to the fire and said it was stacked “floor to ceiling” with boxes.
The day after the fire, city Building Official Andrew Rizzo declared the parcel an imminent danger and the city hired a contractor to take down the buildings, which once housed the old Kresge department store.
Through most, if not all, of the demolition, there was a 24-hour police presence at the fire site, which cuts a swath in a city block bordering Church, Chapel, Orange and Center streets. Once demolition of the rear portion of the building was complete, leaving just the front section of the building — which did not have access to the basement — the property was graded and there was no longer access to the basement.
Through a spokesperson, Rizzo said Tuesday that he was unaware of the burglary and that, to the best of his knowledge, all merchandise was there when he turned the property back over to the owner.
All of it came down, as did another building that survived the fire but was crippled during demolition, except for the front section of New Haven Variety.
On Jan. 23, the city turned the property back over to the owner and gave 30 days to demolish it or start fixing it.
Owner Paul Denz said no determination had been made on the fate of the building.
“I’m in there with my engineers and we’re trying to figure out whether it’s salvageable or not,” he said.
An aldermanic public hearing is scheduled for todayWednesday to talk about the Kresge fire, although it’s likely a good portion of conversation will occur in private executive session. Both Denz and the owner of 848 Chapel St., which also was razed, have filed legal action against the city.
Early on, the city estimated demolition could cost anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000. The most recent estimate was around $2 million. The city is expected to put liens on the property to recoup the costs.

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