Posted at: 07/05/2012 11:38 PM
| Updated at: 07/06/2012 10:48 AM
By: Dan Levy
SCHENECTADY - An investigation was underway Thursday night to determine if the fire that destroyed Luigi's Restaurant in Schenectady was deliberately set, and if so, who did it.
The official cause of the fire was changed early Thursday evening from 'undetermined' to 'suspicious' after a remarkable 6-year old sleuth found, perhaps, a key piece of evidence.
That sleuth is a specially trained accelerant-sniffing chocolate Labrador retriever named Braith who apparently hit forensic pay dirt in the rubble.
"Braith can't tell me that it's gasoline or kerosene or alcohol," said Investigator William McGovern, of the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, assigned to the Arson Bureau's Albany Office. "He can only tell me that one of those things he's been trained to indicate is there and we send the samples to the lab to try to confirm what exactly it is."
The investigation follows a huge overnight fire on Barrett Street, featuring raging flames and thick smoke to go along with a bright orange glow that illuminated the entire north end of Schenectady and beyond.
By daybreak Thursday, city firefighters were still dousing hot spots at Luigi's Restaurant, a building that stood as a landmark in Schenectady's Little Italy Neighborhood for more than half a century. What puzzled fire investigators was that the restaurant has been shut down for six years and there's no gas or electric hook up.
"It certainly raises some questions and we do have some concerns about that," said Schenectady Fire Chief Michael DellaRocco.
DellaRocco also confirmed that neighbors reporting seeing people in and around the building in the days leading up to the fire.
By Thursday afternoon, a large excavator had been brought in to move the charred remains out of the way, and to make room for Braith and human investigators to get a closer look at the scene.
Also at the scene were family members of Marlene Hill, the 75-year old former owner, tragically murdered in 2006, which, for all intents and purposes end Luigi's long run.
"I look back and I remember my grandma coming in and she would always just put a smile on your face," said Staci Metz, Hill's granddaughter. "She was just that type of person. Even though the building may be gone, the (memories) will always be in our hearts. No one can take them away."
"I started crying because I was very upset," said Tracey Tighe, arriving at the scene where she used to waitress. "My dad used to come in here and work. there's going to be a lot of memories here and I guess that's the way we have to keep it. It's just in our heart."
After Braith 'hit' on a possible accelerant, human investigators moved in to collect evidence so that they could send samples to a forensic laboratory. Results could take several weeks.
The property is currently owned by the Schenectady Urban Renewal Agency, which seems to eliminate 'insurance money' as a possible motive, if arson is determined to be the cause.