By Sheila McLaughlin and Erica Solvig
The Cincinnati Enquirer
DEERFIELD TWP. - A fire that destroyed a Columbia Road strip center early Wednesday was the work of an arsonist and could be linked to a string of trash bin fires that erupted within an hour, fire officials said.
A dog groomer, gift shop owner and orthodontist were left to salvage what they could and find new locations as Warren County detectives, the state fire marshal and township fire investigators searched for evidence in the rubble.
The building owner, Township Trustee William Morand, said the 23-year-old, one-story brick structure was a total loss, and he wasn't sure if he would rebuild. Fire officials estimate the damage at $500,000.
Fire Chief William Kramer said a fire set in large plastic trash cans behind the Morand Building at 8965 Columbia Road, apparently spread to the structure, engulfing it in flames before firefighters arrived.
Although a door was found standing open at the rear of orthodontist Eric Hickman's office, no fire was set inside, Capt. Doug Wehmeyer, the township fire investigator, said.
"That leaves the possibility that somebody would have been in there and left in a hurry," Kramer said.
The building fire was discovered about 4:20 a.m. by firefighters who were on their way to a trash bin fire at the AmeriStop Food Mart, which is about one block from the Morand Building.
By 5:17 a.m. two other trash bins in the area were set ablaze behind the CVS pharmacy on U.S. 22/Ohio 3 and the Nantucket apartment complex several blocks east. No damage to those buildings was reported.
"It's extremely suspicious and we're trying to link them all together," Wehmeyer said.
Anyone with information is urged to call Crime Stoppers at 352-3040; the Warren County Sheriff's Office at 695-1280; or the state fire marshal's office, at (800)-589-2728.
"Who would want to do that?" said a shaken Karen Fitzpatrick, who owns Karen's K-9 Korner there.
Fitzpatrick said she learned about the fire at her 15-year-old business when she turned on the television at her Maineville home.
By the time she rushed to work, she found her livelihood was gone.
Fitzpatrick, her small staff and their families combed through the blackened mess to find scissors, equipment, client records and whatever else could be saved.
"My insurance probably will replace what we lost," Fitzpatrick said. "Our biggest worry is where do we go?"
Township officials were trying to help relocate the businesses to temporary quarters, Kramer said.
Hickman has already found a new office. He said he received calls from about 30 dentists offering him space in their buildings. He took one up on it and plans to reopen July 7 at a Milford location.
In the meantime, his staff was working out of a vacant storefront at the Landen Station shopping center to reschedule appointments. Hickman said all patient records were recovered from the rubble.
Betty Roth, who lost the Something Else gift shop, was too upset to talk about her plans for the future, daughter Karen Schiffer said.
Roth's shop, which carried gifts and collectibles, was an original tenant in the building and had developed such a loyal following that customers were dropping by with boxes and trucks Wednesday to help Roth cart away what was left of her store.
"It just wasn't a shop. People came here and talked for hours. She's a second mom to a lot of people," Schiffer said. "It's her whole life."
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