July 10, 2008
Storeowners look to rebuild after arson
June 27 fire started by burned note damaged businesses, apartments in Clinton Ave. building
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
The Cortland Army-Navy Surplus store on Clinton Avenue remains wrapped in tape more than a week after a June 27 fire shut it down.
Almost two weeks after an arsonist started a fire in the laundry next door to her Clinton Avenue store, Marilyn Rosato was still struck by the extent of the smoke damage.
“You realize how much smoke there was when you pick up a box off the floor,” she said. “And it’s the smoke smell that’s really bad.”
Rosato and her husband, Ron, operate the Cortland Army-Navy Surplus store, which took heavy damage from smoke June 27 during a fire that started next door at Crown Cleaning Center at 21 Clinton Ave.
Police arrested Justin J. Chaffee, 20, of 1215 Lansing Street, Ithaca, the next day, and charged him with third-degree arson, a felony, and second-degree reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor, in connection with the fire.
Investigators said video surveillance tape recovered at the Laundromat showed Chaffee in the building at the same time as the fire, which began at about 8:44 p.m.
Chaffee is currently being held in the Cortland County Jail on $5,000 cash or $10,000 bond bail. He is due to reappear in City Court July 16.
He confessed to police officers shortly after he was arrested.
“Last night I did something really stupid,” he told police, according to court records.
Chaffee told investigators that he went into the Laundromat holding a break-up note from his girlfriend. He said he sat down and lit the note on fire using a match, and that he had only meant to burn the note.
“I figured the paper would just go out,” he said in his statement to police. “I didn’t know that the fire got out of control until this (the following) morning.”
Fire officials said the blaze did not cause any structural damage to the building, but firefighters had to tear down wall facings and ceiling tiles to reach pockets of fire.
Rosato said the smoke damaged her store’s entire stock, much of which is military clothing.
“A salvage company is going to come and take it all away,” she said. “We’re going to have to start all over again.”
Rosato said she and other storeowners are working with their respective insurance companies, providing information and trying to determine how much they’ll be compensated for their losses.
Fire officials estimated that the damage to the building, retail stock and personal belongings inside probably exceeds $200,000.
Larry and Warna Spraker of Locke were about to open a new consignment shop called “Made To Order” at 21 1/2 Clinton Ave. the Monday after the fire. The Sprakers were unavailable.
Amery Tutino, who co-owns Crown Cleaning Center and the apartments above it, told police that he found heavy damage from fire and smoke in the Laundromat and in the apartments, and water damage in the building’s basement.
Dale Levine, 56, lived in one of the building’s second-floor apartments, and was helped by firefighters through a window as smoke began to fill the building at about 9 p.m. June 27.
She said when she returned to her apartment, she said she found an odor of smoke permeating the residence, and that firefighters had forced open the door.
Chaffee told police that he is sorry for the damage he caused.
“I will do whatever I can to make this right,” he said. “I want the owner to know I will rebuild that whole place.”
Theresa Tutino, who owns the Crown Cleaning Center, did not immediately return phone calls Wednesday.
Rosato said she’s been in the store on a daily basis, trying to clean out the smoke residue.
“It’s hard not to have a place to go to work in the morning,” she said.
Also frustrating has been their inability to provide clothing and patches for local reservists and National Guard members. Last week, Rosato said her store received an order for unit patches from Task Force Phoenix, the New York Army National Guard’s 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, which is currently deployed to Afghanistan.
“We unfortunately can’t provide those for them,” she said.
But Rosato said she’s looking forward to re-opening the store — she just can’t be sure when she’ll be able to do that.
“I do want people to know that we are moving forward,” she said. “We love our business.”
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