Two teenage boys arrested in VFW fire

Investigators on Thursday afternoon arrested two teenage boys suspected of starting several fires in the unincorporated area southwest of Modesto, including a blaze that destroyed a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall that stood for decades before it was gutted in August.

Stanislaus County Sheriff's detectives and Modesto Fire Department investigators arrested the 13- and 17-year-old at their west Modesto homes. Sheriff's officials did not release their names because they are minors.

Both were booked into Juvenile Hall; the 13-year-old on three counts of arson and the 17-year-old on four counts of arson, deputy Royjindar Singh said.

He said the boys live near VFW Modesto Post 3199 at 2801 W. Hatch Road, just west of Carpenter Road and south of the Tuolumne River.

"I'm just shocked," said Terry Vernon, the VFW post's quartermaster. "I would never think that someone would do this."

Vernon said he knew about the previous vegetation fires that scorched the nearby area, but he never imagined they were linked to the VFW Hall fire.

Burbank-Paradise Fire District firefighters arrived at the scene of the two-alarm VFW Hall fire in the early morning hours of Aug. 11. With assistance from several other fire departments, firefighters knocked down the fire in about 60 minutes, district Capt. Lance Silva said.

The building was built in the mid-1940s and featured a main hall, kitchen, bar and storage areas. Only the 2,000-square-foot building's walls remain.

Officials said the fire caused an estimated $1 million in damage to the structure and its contents.

Ceremonial World War I rifles and an MIA-POW wall in the bar area that included medals and battle ribbons were burned. Pictures of many of the area's missing and fallen soldiers also were destroyed.

Two walls salvageable

Vernon said it appears that fire insurance will not cover the entire cost of rebuilding the hall, so they are still conducting fund-raisers. He said the insurance payment might be delayed until the arson investigation is completed.

Construction officials determined two standing walls are salvageable, but the rest of it will have to be torn down, Vernon said.

"If we could keep a wall, it could save us a lot of money," Vernon said.

VFW members will enter the building this weekend for the first time since it burned last month. They will try to salvage any contents inside, Vernon said.

As fire officials investigated the several vegetation fires that were started in the same area in the past few months, they were able to develop information that led them to the two boys, Singh said.

After Thursday's arrest, investigators determined that the boys started the fire at the VFW hall, Singh said.

"This is a good example of local fire agencies and law enforcement working together to solve a case and make an arrest," said Craig Davis, a Modesto Fire Department investigator.

Authorities ask anyone with information about this case to call sheriff's Detective Jon Rivera at 525-7094 or Modesto Fire Department investigator Craig Davis at 491-5722. Callers also can leave an anonymous tip by calling CrimeStoppers at 521-4636 and be eligible for a cash reward.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or 578-2394.