BY TAYLOR DUNGJEN, Toledo Blade, Republished with Permission
Less than a week after two Toledo firefighters died battling a North Toledo apartment fire, the property’s owner was charged with and arrested on two counts each of aggravated murder and aggravated arson.
Ray Abou-Arab, 61, of 1311 Sierra Dr., Oregon was held in the Lucas County jail Friday night pending arraignment Monday morning in Toledo Municipal Court.
Fire Pvts. Stephen Machcinski and James Dickman were pronounced dead Sunday afternoon at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center after being rescued from inside the two-story apartment building at 528 Magnolia St., where they had become trapped.
They died of burns and exposure to carbon monoxide, according to autopsies performed by the Lucas County Coroner’s Office.
Mr. Abou-Arab was taken into custody at his home Friday and taken to the downtown Safety Building to speak with investigators. He was formally arrested at 2:20 p.m. and booked into jail at 3:18.
Sheriff John Tharp said he could not reveal whether Mr. Abou-Arab was being kept in the general jail population or was secluded from other inmates, but that officials would “make sure that he is not in a situation where he can be confronted by anyone.”
Sheriff Tharp said Mr. Abou-Arab would not tell jail staff his attorney’s name.
“He’s not being very cooperative,” the sheriff said before declining a Blade request that he ask Mr. Abou-Arab if he would be willing to speak to a reporter.
Under Ohio law, a charge designated as “aggravated” implies prior calculation and can carry heftier penalties.
Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins said investigators executed three search warrants Thursday: one at Mr. Abou-Arab’s home, one of his vehicle, and one at the fire scene.
The mayor declined to say what was seized from each location or how that allowed investigators to zero in on Mr. Abou-Arab.
“Based on the evaluation, probable cause developed and resulted in the arrest,” Mayor Collins said Friday while he waited in Sandusky to tell the Dickman family about the charges.
At that time, the Dickmans were burying the 31-year-old firefighter whom the Toledo Fire and Rescue Division had hired in September.
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The Machcinski family was notified about the charges before the arrest Friday, the mayor said. Private Machcinski was a 15-year Toledo Fire veteran.
Jeff Lingo, chief of the criminal division for the Lucas County Prosecutor’s Office, would not predict when prosecutors might seek an indictment against Mr. Abou-Arab.
“This case will proceed to the Lucas County grand jury when we have all the information and reports and we are prepared to present it,” he said, adding that prosecutors have 10 days from the date of a suspect’s arrest to bring an indictment, and longer if the defendant waives a preliminary hearing in municipal court.
Firefighters’ Local 92, the union that represents Toledo firefighters, said in a statement that after a week of so much grief, an arrest could help provide some relief, and the union hoped for a swift and just outcome.
“How anybody could do such an act is beyond any source of reason,” the union said of the arson charges.
According to court documents, Mr. Abou-Arab, who with Mariam Abou-Arab has owned the Magnolia Street building since 1992, entered a garage there and spent more than a minute inside before exiting and going into the front of Huron Market, connected to the apartment units, the reports say. Shortly after he left the garage, a resident spotted a burning wall and called 911, the documents say.
Investigators said they found “an ignitable liquid” inside the garage after the fire.
It’s not clear how many other people were inside the apartments at the time of the fire, but Mr. Abou-Arab said seven people lived in the six dwellings.
On Sunday, Tracy Bishop, who lived in Apartment 4, watched firefighters battle the smoke and flames.
“I heard somebody go into the garage … because my apartment is right behind the garage,” she said. “And I heard the garage door go open like I always do when they go on, and then I heard it shut. And then all of a sudden I look up and there’s fire.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, the place is on fire,’ ” she said.
Mr. Abou-Arab also watched the building burn Sunday. He identified himself to a reporter as Ray Abou and gave only brief comments. Asked if he had an indication about the fire’s cause, Mr. Abou-Arab said he heard it could be “electric” in nature, but did not know where the fire started.
He said he hoped the firefighters who had been pulled from the smoking building about 20 minutes before that interview would be OK, and all tenants were safe.
Human safety, he said, was “the main thing.”
The fire was tough to watch — “I don’t need that,” Mr. Abou-Arab said. He repeatedly mentioned during the brief exchange that he had just spent $2,500 to repair plumbing damage from this winter’s frigid cold.
When a reporter went to Mr. Abou-Arab’s home Friday, the suspect’s family declined to comment.
On Friday, investigators from the Toledo police and fire departments and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, walked around the fire scene and in and out of Huron Market, which has been closed since the fire. Other agencies assisted the investigation, including the State Fire Marshal, FBI, and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
A man who identifies himself on Twitter as Matthew Gross said he knows Mr. Abou-Arab and his family.
“They are hard working wonderful people,” he wrote. “His children are outstanding people. Raised properly. Media and public will vilify him but the Ray I know was a good person.”
In 528 Magnolia’s 137-year history, several fires have been reported, including in December, 1996; December, 1998, and September, 2002.
Another apartment building owned by Mr. Abou-Arab caught fire twice within a six-month period last decade. That five-unit structure at 809 N. Huron St. — which Mr. Abou-Arab sold in 2007, according to county records — was on fire in August, 2002, and again the following January.
After the second fire, Mr. Abou-Arab told a Blade reporter he owned 509 N. Huron and was a Jeep production worker.
Mr. Abou-Arab filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy in May, 2012; he listed his average monthly income as $4,387 and average monthly expenses at $5,230. The filing also listed $210,000 in real property assets and $4,282 in personal property assets.
Among the real property assets is 528 Magnolia, which he valued at $50,000 and listed $92,719 as “amount of secure claim” for the property.
Mr. Abou-Arab has a history of misdemeanor convictions, all involving charges to which he pleaded no contest and was found guilty in Toledo Municipal Court.
Those convictions included one in March, 2011, for attempted illegal use of food stamps; two counts of unauthorized use of property in 2005; one count of loitering in a motor vehicle with the operator or passenger soliciting prostitution in 2003, and one count in 2000 of failure to carry a cigarette license.
Blade staff writers Nolan Rosenkrans, Ignazio Messina, Roberta Gedert, Vanessa McCray and Alex Mester contributed to this report.
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