Originally created 06/08/06

Fire destroys investment



Four weeks ago, Jose Cruz decided to sell the white-frame house he owned on New McDuffie Road.

A week ago, he heard he might have a buyer.

Early Wednesday morning, someone or something caused a spark to ignite a blaze in the middle left bedroom.

Now all that's left of the house in the 2300 block of New McDuffie is the front porch. The rest is collapsed into a twisted, charred mass from an intense fire that ripped through at 4 a.m.

"First we had the SWAT team out here Monday and now this," Mr. Cruz said Wednesday afternoon, as he wiped his brow. "Now the vultures will come. Now they'll want to buy it."

Mr. Cruz didn't learn about the fire until about 11 Wednesday morning. That's when he got a call from Lt. G.B. Hannan, an investigator with the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department.

Lt. Hannan was back at the house hours after the fire, trying to find the cause.

Mr. Cruz said he believes it's not his tenant's fault. His tenant, Johnnie Lee Lewis, was held Wednesday at the Richmond County jail on charges including domestic violence after his girlfriend told police he threatened her Monday with a gun and then slapped her.

During a phone conversation with officers, police say, Mr. Lewis, 30, threatened to kill himself with a handgun even though six children were inside the home. Mr. Lewis held officers at bay for an hour before he was talked into surrendering.

"I closed the place up Monday after that," Mr. Cruz said. "The place was ransacked."

Mr. Lewis' girlfriend moved out Monday with the children, and Mr. Cruz locked up the house.

"It's such a shame," he said as he stood under the shade of a scorched magnolia. "I bought this as an investment. The septic tank is brand new. The siding is only 3 years old."

Though he has insurance, none of the property is salvageable now.

"I don't have a clue what I'm going to do," he said.

He does, though, have a theory of what happened.

"Arson, right off the bat, that was my first thought," he said.

The answer could be weeks away beneath the remains of the bedroom.

"It's going to take a little time," said Lt. Hannan. "Right now, it was just a fire."

Reach Amy Allyn Swann at (706) 823-3338 or amy.swann@augustachronicle.com.