Grocers whereabouts at time of fire questioned


A Portland Fire Bureau investigator testified Monday at the arson trial of Burlingame Grocery & Deli owner Thomas Calkins that Calkins said he was across the street from his store when a fire broke out Sept. 18, 2001, destroying the market.

Fire investigator Jerry Butler said that Calkins, who faces two counts of first-degree arson in the case, first told him on the night of the fire that he was home when the alarm company called.

However, Butler testified, Calkins told him the morning after the fire that, 'in fact, he was across the street from Burlingame Grocery checking on the people who clean his building. He did not take the call from the alarm company as he said he did on the night of the fire.'

Prosecutors allege there was a financial motive for Calkins to burn down his own store and collect the cash from his insurance policy. Calkins' attorneys dispute such a motive and say the fire ignited accidentally.

Butler said that a number of officers who worked the fire immediately wondered if it was arson because of the speed of the blaze. The first firefighters arrived at 11:17 p.m., and by 11:33 p.m., the fire had spread throughout the whole store. The roof collapsed at 11:59 p.m., 13 minutes after firefighters had evacuated the building.

With more than 100 firefighters, 15 engines and six trucks involved, Butler said, the fire was under control by 1 a.m.

Butler said the fire started in the grocer's break room, where there were a lot of combustibles, such as paper, soda cans and other recyclables. He said the fire did not come from any electrical devices or outlets; there were no signs of shorting or arcing in the electrical fixtures.

Butler also said that Calkins had told him that no appliances, such as a microwave or coffee maker, were allowed in the break room.

At one point, Butler said, it was hot enough in the store to melt the Sheetrock around a storage area and hot enough to cook the soot off the cinderblocks, which rarely happens.

The department brought in a canine detection team to look for accelerants; the dog found nothing, Butler testified. But, he said, 'sometimes, they don't need one. Paper or anything that burns quick and hot will work. Many times an arsonist will use available combustibles.'

As prosecutors continued presenting their case before a Multnomah County Circuit Court jury in Judge Linda Bergman's courtroom, the defense renewed its objections to a security system video that was shown in court last Thursday. Bergman had ruled before testimony started last week that the video would be admitted as evidence.

Forensic video expert Grant Fredericks testified Thursday that the man seen walking through the store on the videotape had a build and height that were similar to Calkins' and wore clothes like those Calkins was wearing when he was shown later in the evening on a KOIN (6) broadcast standing outside the store watching the fire.

But Calkins' attorney, Wayne Mackeson, filed a second motion Monday morning, again seeking dismissal of the videotape as evidence, saying, 'It's beyond the scope of this expert witness, and this goes to the point of the defense whether the fire was set intentionally.'

On Thursday, Mackeson had sought to poke holes in Fredericks' credibility and comparison of the person in the security video to Calkins. He repeatedly asked Fredericks if he hadn't said the person seen on the night of the fire had frizzy hair. Calkins, 60, has thick, silver hair.

'No,' Fredericks said. 'I was referring to the halo effect from the light source.'

George Markoff, owner of Sentry Real Estate in Beaverton, followed Fredericks to the stand, testifying that Calkins did not appear to be in as desperate financial need to sell his store as prosecutors claim.

Markoff said the grocer approached him in 1997 to list the Southwest Terwilliger Boulevard store. Four years ago, Markoff said, a private buyer who had seen the earlier listing for Burlingame Grocery, offered to buy it for $1.1 million over a 15-year period. Calkins, who was seeking $1.5 million for the store, rejected the offer, Markoff said.

'Tom said he wasn't going to go down on price,' said Pat Birmingham, another Calkins attorney. 'It was a going business.'

There were no efforts by Calkins to renew the sales process, Birmingham said.

Calkins' business Ñ in which wine and beer sales made up a large part of the grocery's revenue Ñ dropped off considerably after the arrival of a nearby Zupan's store. To deal with the 18 percent decline in sales, Calkins streamlined the wine case sales to make his business more efficient, Birmingham said.

He continued to earn about $200,000 a year.

In 2001, Calkins and his wife inherited the house next door after its owner, a family friend, died. They resold it for $470,000 after the fire, Birmingham said, another indication that Calkins was not desperate for money.

'It was his retirement,' Birmingham said. 'He was going to let one of his key employees manage the place, or one of his sons.'