The owner of a Westside auto repair shop that caught fire early Monday morning says the state fire marshal told him it was arson.
Just before 5 a.m. Monday, Jacksonville Fire-Rescue was called to B.L.C. Automotive Repair at 4809 Blanding Blvd. The owner said the fire heavily damaged a newly renovated building and several customers' cars. He said he also found that a safe containing "a substantial amount of money" was opened with a torch.
"We got an unknown-type call. Crews came this way and discovered there was a large auto repair shop that was heavily involved in fire heavy smoke," said District Fire Chief Donald Blanton. "More crews were called to scene and turned out to be a second-alarm fire."
Car shop owner Mark Fleming said the arsonist used Fleming's tools, specifically his torch, to break open the safe. He left the safe and took what the owner described as a "substantial" amount of money.
The family business has been around for 24 years, and Fleming just finished renovating the building last week.
"You work hard and you try to save some money," Fleming said. "We've been working hard for the community to provide a good service, and when something like this happens, it is pretty devastating."
Devastating for not only him, but his family, employees and customers.
"That's the real devastating part is the customers were affected," Fleming said. "The money for me, yes it hurts. But the customers and the inconvenience that are going to come over this, that's a very heartening thing for me, too. My heart goes out to those people, and I'll do everything i can to make them whole again."
Fleming said someone broke the concrete surrounding the safe. Much of his shop and equipment were destroyed. Fleming believes whoever did this set the place on fire to cover up his or her tracks.
Because this fire was near several other suspicious fires to businesses in the area, state arson investigators were immediately called to the scene. But because the other fires did not involve theft, they are not sure if this one is related.
JFRD said a vacant church on the Westside had been set on fire four times since September. Since then, police have questioned several people in reference to the fires at Church of the Epiphany, but it's unknown if anyone is facing charges.
In October, a fire ripped through the Value Place Extended Stay Hotel, which was under construction and scheduled to open this month. Jacksonville Fire-Rescue personnel said the structure was fully engulfed in flames when the first units arrived.
Also in October, a fire destroyed the former Bennigan's on Blanding at Youngerman Circle.
And last week, a fire burned Video Empire, a video rental store on Blanding Boulevard just south of 103rd Street.
Each of the fires happened near Blanding Boulevard and 103rd Street. Most of them JFRD considers to be arson. No injuries were involved in any of these fires.
No arrests have been made.
"The building had a large ceiling and at one part of the building it was a two-office area within the auto repair shop, and there was lots of damage to all parts of the building," Blanton said of B.L.C.
The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office closed Blanding Boulevard between 103rd Street and Wesconnett Boulevard for several hours early Monday morning. The roadway was reopened before 7 a.m.
Fleming is hoping the public will help investigators solve this case.
"Somebody knows something, he said. "And if anybody could come forward with any kind of information, I'm thinking about a pretty hefty reward."
Fleming said although this is going to set him back quite a bit, he can rebuild and is just grateful no one was hurt. The shop will be closed for at least a couple days and will reopen as soon as possible.
People from a local church volunteered to help employees clean up.
Fleming said he had an arson fire about five years ago in which his building didn't catch fire, but several of his customers' cars did. In that instance, the insurance company covered it.