On September 13, 2023

Dress factory fire set intentionally day after body found inside

 

City officials consider cleanup plan

By Katy Savage

A fire at the former dress factory on Cleveland Avenue in Rutland City was intentionally set the day after a body was found in the building, according to Rutland Fire Chief Bill Lovett.

Firefighters arrived around 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7 after receiving an anonymous 911 call. A police officer driving through the area also saw smoke and glow in the windows.

Lovett said the fire in the long-vacant building was intentionally set in two locations with building debris and the paper backing of insulation.

It took the fire department about an hour to put the fire out. 

“We used quite a bit of water and soaked everything down,” Lovett said. “It’s not the cleanest environment so we had to pay particular attention to decontaminating things.”

It’s unclear who started the fire. 

“There’s such a transient population in that building, it’s really kind of hard to determine,” Lovett said. 

The building, the former Lynda Lee dress factory, has been vacant for about 15 years and has become a popular place for the homeless, creating a headache for city officials.

The property is posted and deemed unsafe to occupy. 

“Its structural integrity is in question,” Lovett said.  

The fire occurred just as city officials were discussing how to secure the building after they removed a body from the space the day before. 

An anonymous person called 911 and reported the dead person around 5:20 p.m. Sept. 6.

Police Chief Brian Kilcullen said they suspected a male overdosed. 

“It’s still being investigated,” Kilcullen said. “We suspect, through things that were found at that location, there was a drug problem.”

A week earlier, there was a small fire at the building. 

Mayor Michael Doenges met with the police chief, fire chief, building inspector and zoning administrator the morning before the fire at City Hall to figure out what was needed to keep the homeless out. 

Doenges said they spoke with owner John Ruggiero to secure the building. 

“We put an urgency toward making sure that got done,” Doenges said, explaining Ruggiero was “compliant.”

Attempts to reach Ruggiero weren’t successful.

Ruggiero, a former attorney, owns dozens of properties in Rutland and has been cited multiple times over the years. 

In 2022, he was ordered to pay a fine after two Rutland children had elevated lead levels in their blood after living in Ruggiero’s apartments.

Doenges said all the windows on the first floor were boarded up after the fire occurred.

“Right now, it’s probably pretty difficult to get into,” he said. 

But Lovett said the owner’s previous attempts to put boards over the windows didn’t work for long.

“You board them up and 10 minutes later they’re back inside,” he said. 

Lovett has counted as many as five tents in the building. He’s also seen tarps or plastic hanging from the roof rafters. 

“The roof’s leaking pretty substantially,” he said.

On the day of the fire, Lovett said seven or eight people he believed to be homeless were standing by as crews extinguished the fire, with a “great interest” in what they were doing.

“When we left, within five minutes, they were walking back into the building again,” Lovett said.  

Lovett said there have been numerous fires in the building over the years.

“We aren’t often called for some of these until they get out of hand,” he said. “We’ve seen evidence of other fires that we weren’t aware of at the time.” 

The city has been considering purchasing the building to solve the issue. 

The city sent a letter of intent stating the desire to purchase the building months ago. Doenges said the owner was still reviewing the document. 

“We think there’s an opportunity there,” Doenges said. 

Doenges said the city would likely tear the building down and sell the parcel to a new buyer. 

“The neighbors over there are suffering because of this blighted piece of real estate,” Doenges said. 

It’s unclear what the cleanup cost would cost the city. He hopes the property would be part of Rutland’s proposed tax increment financing district. 

Clay Point Associates, Inc. in Williston is studying the contamination in the building and Doenges expects the results imminently.   Until then, the frequent activity puts city workers at risk. 

“We’re putting our workers at risk in a space that’s supposed to be unoccupied in the first place,” Doenges said.

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