Tuesday, September 26, 2000
Steamboat Springs A 19-year-old man has confessed to setting the Aug. 28 fire that destroyed two townhouses, Steamboat Springs police said Tuesday. The same man confessed to stealing last summer two wooden signs that welcomed visitors to Steamboat.
Matthew John Hoffman, 19, was booked into the Routt County Jail Tuesday afternoon on suspicion of committing first-degree arson, second-degree burglary, aggravated motor vehicle theft and two counts of theft.
Director of Public Safety J.D. Hays said Hoffman admitted he used gasoline to set the fire that caused 16 people to be evacuated from The Ridge townhome building in the early morning hours of Aug. 28. The blaze spread rapidly enough to make Steamboat firefighters suspicious from the beginning. It destroyed two townhomes and damaged two others at the eight-unit building on Storm Meadows Drive, overlooking the lowest slopes at the Steamboat Ski Area.
No one was injured in the blaze. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation is still testing evidence gathered at the crime scene, but CBI investigators confirmed Sept. 1 that the fire was arson.
Hays said investigators already suspected Hoffman might be linked to the arson fire when they asked him to come to the police station to talk about another unrelated crime, the theft of two large wooden signs worth $5,000 each. The signs once stood at both entrances to town on U.S. 40, welcoming visitors to Steamboat Springs. They were stolen July 22.
Police wanted to interview Hoffman in connection with the disappearance of the signs, possibly for receiving stolen property, after they were spotted in a room at the D-Bar-K Motel on the city's south side.
A rental application indicated Hoffman was the last person to rent the room in which the signs were found.
Police also knew Hoffman worked for a local plumbing firm, Scott Barnes Plumbing, that had previously done work in the townhome the fire started in.
"We got the signs and we contacted the guy who occupied the room," Hays said. "He had left town abruptly after the fire. But we were able to contact him through his parents in Ohio."
Hays said police had reason to believe Hoffman could be connected to the arson.
"What linked him was that he worked for a plumbing company that installed a disposal" in Unit 7 at The Ridge, the same townhome in which the fire broke out, Hays said.
Hays said Hoffman came in of his own volition to be interviewed about the "Welcome to Steamboat" signs.
He waived is right to an attorney and under questioning, admitted to having taken both door keys and car keys from Unit 7 while doing plumbing work there.
Hoffman also told police he stole items from the townhome, including big game trophy mounts, and loaded them into a white Chevrolet Suburban belonging to the unit's owner. He told police he drove it down Burgess Creek Road before abandoning it in a parking lot at the Clocktower, Hays said.
Hays said Hoffman told them he planned to return for the vehicle, but police beat him to it.
Hoffman then admitted to setting the fire with gasoline.
The owner of Unit 7, Robert Egizii, a contractor from Springfield, Ill., was traveling on Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. He has previously contacted Steamboat Today to express his outrage that the person who set the fire could easily have committed murder had the guests at The Ridge not been safely evacuated.
Egizii noted that his extended family, including five grandchildren, had been visiting the townhome earlier in the summer, and the thought that they could have been injured in a similar incident shook him up.
Barb Shipley of Johnston Shipley Management, said she and her husband, John, were ecstatic over the news of Hoffman's arrest.
"I think our ownership will be very, very relieved," Shipley said. She said her company, which manages the townhome project, and Security Plus, which contracts to provide security inspections overnight, have had a heightened awareness since the arson fire.
"Luckily, everything worked out the way it was supposed to, from Western Security (the alarm company) to Security Plus, to the police and fire department," Shipley said.
Shipley said she knows Egizii took the break-in and arson fire personally.
"This was a non-rental unit," Shipley said. "Our owners treat these second homes like their own home."
Shipley said her company has had a longstanding and valuable relationship with Scott Barnes Plumbing. Barnes was not available for comment at press time.
Shipley also praised detective Ross Kelly's work on the case.
Hays characterized the investigation that linked the stolen signs to the arson as thorough police work.
"You need a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work," Hays said.
Among the 16 people staying at The Ridge Aug. 28 were three adult children of the late football great Doak Walker who were here to participate in a benefit golf tournament bearing their father's name. Shipley said when she was called at home about the fire she immediately called the Walkers' unit.
"When I called Scotty Walker and asked him what was going on, I could hear the blaze in the background," she said.
On the day Hoffman was taken into custody, one of the stolen signs was put back up. Donald Woodsmith, who made the signs, put the sign back at its resting spot in West Lincoln Park.
Woodsmith is repairing the second sign, which will greet visitors at the eastern edge of the city.
Gary Salazar contributed to this story.