by Ian Froeb
An ex-employee of Copia Urban Winery and Market, the Washington Avenue dining spot that was lost in an early-morning blaze last December, faces federal arson charges. U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway announced the indictment this morning against 26-year-old Gilbert Summers, a "back bar" worker who had been at Copia only a month or two and was a long-rumored suspect.
Hanaway would not talk about Summers' potential motives, or even say whether he had been fired.
Summers faces two counts of arson, each carrying a maximum penalty of up to twenty years, or fines of $250,000. According to Hanaway, investigators believe there were actually three fires: one in the adjacent Vanguard Loft at 1110 Washington Avenue, one in a storage area at Copia and a third in the banquet room/back patio. Walking down the alley, one can still see soot on the walls outside Copia, and the charred mess inside the locked patio.
Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms arrested Summers late Thursday afternoon. Hanaway attributed the six-month delay to the federal system, in which all evidence is gathered before making an arrest.
Summers has served time before; he pleaded guilty to a 2003 charge of second-degree robbery in St. Louis and received a five-year sentence. According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, he was released on parole on July 11, 2006.
Representatives of Copia Urban Market and Winery and the Vanguard weren't immediately available. Copia's Web site says it's planning to rebuild.
Joining Hanaway in the press conference at the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courts Building, top brass of the St. Louis fire and police departments thanked the front-line people who helped bring the case. "Arson is particularly difficult because many times the points of origin are inaccessible to us," St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Chief Joe Mokwa said.
Mokwa made a point of acknowledging the department's crime lab. "They were instrumental in this case, and I'm proud of them," he said.
Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson commended the first responders, who heeded the suspicion of arson and limited the amount of damage they added to the building.
Oddly, though, it was Hanaway's office that netted the case. Many of the destroyed business "supplies" were involved in interstate commerce. Could that be wine?