Probe continues in DeKalb apartment fires

By Jack McCarthy Chronicle Media

The parking lot is empty and no one is getting through padlocked doors at the Ridgebrook Apartments in DeKalb after a July 9 blaze left approximately 140 people homeless. (Photos by Jack  McCarthy / Chronicle Media)

The area around Ridgebrook Apartments in the 800 block of Ridge Drive was quieter than usual Friday.

No residents were in sight, the parking lot was empty and entry doors to the three-story complex were padlocked.

The property was shuttered and condemned by DeKalb authorities after a July 9 blaze that displaced an estimated 140 people, some who had difficulty escaping.

Another fire occurred two days later nearby at 930 Greenbriar Road that forced a reported 14 families out of their apartments.

Arson is suspected in the fires at the complexes managed by DeKalb-based Hunter Properties and it wasn’t the first fire at the Ridgebrook location, which has had reports of five fires during an unspecified time frame.

Authorities continued to sift through evidence in a search for a suspect or suspects while social agencies helped the affected residents with shelter, food and services.

DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas was unsparing in his criticism of the condition of the Ridgebrook complex and what he viewed to be Hunter’s approach to management.

“When people are renting or people are dependent on somebody else to generally control the environment in which they live, we expect that they can get out quickly and safely with the most warning possible,” he said. “Last night we saw people leaping out of windows. That’s not acceptable. And why is that?  …  That was what they considered to be the best recourse under the  circumstances.

“It’s shameful. It speaks to a cynical indifference to the conditions of that particular complex. It speaks to a business model that puts a return on investment ahead of the welfare of the people who the complex serves. As the chief law enforcement official for the City of DeKalb, I intend to see that that stops.”

As of press time this week there was no official word if any suspects were in custody.

“We have some leads  and everybody wants to know,  we don’t want to compromise our case to divulge too much information for fear that it could harm it,” said DeKalb Police Chief Police Chief John Petragallo. “We are currently interviewing residents and getting comments from them.

“One of the most important things that we do on any investigation that we conduct is we look around for any video surveillance in and around where an incident happens.” Petragallo added. “Our hope is that this will be fruitful to the case.”

Petragallo said there were a number of working cameras in the building and in the immediate neighborhood.

Both apartment complexes are located north of the Northern Illinois University campus and managed by DeKalb-based Hunter Properties.

The exterior of the Ridgebrook complex, located at 808 Ridge Drive, showed no visible evidence of a fire, which reportedly started on the third floor.

But interior damage was apparently serious enough to close the building. Red signs with black print were taped to each door.

When DeKalb Police, DeKalb Fire and Northern Illinois University police responded to the Ridgebrook fire at around 10:54 p.m. on July 9 they found a building ablaze and some residents unable to exit.

“We received a call for an active fire at 808 Ridge Drive with people trapped in the building,” said DeKalb Fire Chief Jeff McMaster   “Upon fire units’ arrival along with law enforcement we found heavy fire and heavy smoke in the building with people actively jumping from their apartments and yelling for help.”

Six people were transported to Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Community Hospital for treatment, one with life-threatening injuries.

Conditions of the injured were not known at press time.

The City of DeKalb said a Northern Illinois University building was quickly brought into service as a collection point for residents.

The American Red Cross of Northwest Illinois and the DeKalb County Housing Authority quickly stepped in to help provide emergency shelter after the Ridgebrook fire.

The DeKalb County Animal Control and Tails Animal Shelter also responded to help with temporary placement of pets.

A smaller fire reported in the early hours of July 11 in the 900 block of Greenbriar Road forced 14 families out of their homes. On Friday, the building appeared to be undamaged and open.

DeKalb Police, the Office of the State Fire Marshal and the DeKalb Fire Department are investigating.

Anyone with information on either fire is asked to contact 815-748-8400 or Crime Stoppers at 815-895-3272.

“Our investigators are working tirelessly on this case and we know time is of the essence to maintain evidence,” Petragallo said.