Investigators hint that deadly San Marcos fire was a crime
San Marcos and federal authorities will reveal more information Friday morning about how a catastrophic apartment fire started last July that ultimately killed five people and severely burned a sixth victim.
The officials also will announce a reward “for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction of the person(s) responsible” for the July 20 inferno at Iconic Village Apartments, according to a news release issued this afternoon by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Houston office.
News of a reward strongly suggested that officials have concluded that someone set the fire. That would bring even more urgency to an already high-profile investigation that authorities have been working on for more than four months.
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The briefing to reporters will begin in San Marcos at 10:30 a.m. Friday, but is not open to the public. The city will broadcast a live feed of the press conference on its Facebook page.
The consequences of the July 20 disaster were devastating and permanent. Five victims were found dead in the rubble after the flames were extinguished — Dru Estes, 20, of San Antonio; Belinda Moats, 21, of Big Wells; Haley Michele Frizzell, 19, of San Angelo; David Angel Ortiz, 21, of Pasadena; and James Phillip Miranda, 23, of Mount Pleasant.
All of those killed were in second-floor apartments of Building 500 at Iconic Village when the conflagration started there shortly before 4:30 a.m. as most residents were asleep. Those victims’ apartments spanned almost the entire circumference of the building’s center courtyard — an indication of how fast the flames spread.
Those inside Building 500’s 28 apartments had very little time to react as the fire grew. By the time the first firefighters arrived, flames had wrapped around the building’s metal roof, which soon collapsed.
“The fire was in control of the building from pretty much top to bottom,” San Marcos Assistant Fire Chief Rick Rowell told the San Antonio Express-News several days later. “Those unfortunate five young people were already passed before our units got on scene.”
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The apartments at 222 Ramsay St. — just two blocks from the Texas State University campus — are occupied mostly by current and former students of that school.
Frizzell and Ortiz, who were both Texas State students, were in the same upstairs corner apartment, along with their friend, Zachary Sutterfield, 20, of San Angelo, according to Dallas attorney Bruce Steckler, who represents their families. Sutterfield had been in San Marcos for about a week because he was preparing to transfer to Texas State.
Sutterfield survived the fire, but suffered head trauma and third-degree burns covering 70 percent of his body. He has since undergone at least 21 surgeries and remains hospitalized in the intensive care unit of the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center at Fort Sam Houston, according to a GoFundMe page raising money on his behalf.
Details on how he escaped the inferno haven’t been made public. Sutterfield has no memory of the fire or of his move to San Marcos, according to posts his parents have made on a Facebook page dedicated to his recovery. He continues to ask if any of his friends died in the fire, his parents noted.
Moats, a former Texas State student who was planning to resume studies at the school, lived three doors down from the corner unit occupied by Frizzell, Ortiz and Sutterfield. Miranda, an assistant manager at Discount Tire, lived three doors down from Moats and across the courtyard from Frizzell, Ortiz and Sutterfield.
Estes, a musician who had just completed his sophomore year at Texas State, lived two doors down from Miranda.
Autopsy results showing how exactly the five victims died have not been released.
Ultimately, the fire grew so out of control that it spread to another apartment building at Iconic Village, as well as a building at Vintage Pads Apartments next door. Both apartment complexes are owned by the same company, San Marcos Green Investors LLC.
Firefighters spent more than 13 hours dousing the flames and didn’t withdraw most of their engines and equipment until around 6 p.m. later that day.
The fire was so massive and the debris field so wide that San Marcos Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner, whose office is leading the investigation, brought in the federal ATF National Response Team and the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office to assist. The ATF sent 50 agents to San Marcos — an unusually large number, one forensic fire investigator told the Express-News in August.
In the days after the fire, some residents who had been in their apartments when the pandemonium began said they never heard their smoke detectors go off. Many were awakened by screams, the sounds of glass breaking, others banging on their doors or the smell of smoke.
Some residents in Building 500 had to escape by jumping from second-floor windows. Several of them suffered broken bones when they hit the ground, such as fractured ankles and vertebrae.
The families of all five victims killed and Sutterfield’s parents later sued the owner and managers of Iconic Village Apartments, as have other survivors who escaped with less serious injuries. To date, four separate lawsuits have been lodged in Travis County.
San Marcos Green Investors LLC and the others being sued — property management company Elevate Multifamily LLC and two people who work in the apartments’ leasing office, Deborah Jones of Austin and Thomas Steubing Jr. of New Braunfels — have denied any wrongdoing.
In court papers responding to the lawsuits, they’ve said the fire was caused by acts, omissions or negligence of others over whom they have no control or legal responsibility.
Attorneys defending the apartments’ owner and managers filed new court papers earlier this week saying the fire may have been caused by a “criminal third party” who hasn’t been identified.
“Due to the nature of the incident in question, there is a reasonable probability that the incident in question was caused by an unknown criminal third party,” said court papers filed Monday by Houston attorney Jennifer Akre, who is representing all of those being sued. “There are no known identifying characteristics of the unknown criminal third party at this time.”
Akre has declined to comment on the lawsuits. She and other defense attorneys are seeking to consolidate the lawsuits and to move them to Hays County, where the fire occurred.
Peggy O’Hare is a staff writer in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read her on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @Peggy_OHare