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Teen held in October arson at old John Muir school

Steven Castillo, 18, of Modesto.
Steven Castillo, 18, of Modesto. Unknown

A Modesto teenager has been arrested in connection with the October arson at the old John Muir schoolhouse on East Morris Avenue, the Modesto Fire Department said.

Authorities are looking for other people they believe participated in burning the historic building and hope to make additional arrests, said Battalion Chief Hugo P. Patino Jr. of the Modesto Fire Department.

The building went up in flames Oct. 14, taking with it about half of the city's historical artifacts, which had been stored inside.

Thursday, Modesto fire investigators arrested Steven Castillo, 18, of Modesto after interviewing him about the fire, Patino said.

"Our Fire Investigation Unit did some extensive work interviewing neighbors and trying to get as much information as they could about what anybody may have seen," Patino said Sunday. "Ultimately, it was an anonymous tip that suggested that this gentleman was a participant in the fire."

The unit spent months investigating the arson and developing its case, he said. A tipster recently placed Castillo at the scene, authorities said, and investigators questioned him Thursday.

Castillo denied he set the fire, but his statement was inconsistent, Patino said. Castillo later admitted he was involved with the blaze, Patino added. Castillo is being held at the Public Safety Center on $25,000 bail on suspicion of arson. The case has been turned over to the Stanislaus County district attorney's office for prosecution.

On Oct. 14, firefighters received a call about the fire at 1:23 a.m, Battalion Chief Mark Johansen said the day after the fire.

Johansen saw heavy smoke billowing from the building's upper windows. Light flames were visible. Firefighters tried to knock back the blaze but were unsuccessful. They decided to go on the defensive, surrounding the building so the fire would not spread and spraying water on the flames.

The brick construction made the building unstable, Johansen said, so he kept firefighters at a distance. Flames leapt 50 feet in the air, singeing treetops.

Six fire engines, two trucks, 26 firefighters, four chiefs and two safety officers battled the three-alarm fire through the night. Observers saw flames until 11 a.m. By afternoon, just a few firefighters remained to keep the building wet and watch for flare-ups.

The building had a long his-tory. It was built in 1923 for use as a school. The city bought it in 1953 for $18,000 and turned it into the Community Service Center. The Girl Scouts and United Way had their headquarters there. The Modesto League of Women Voters was an early renter. Families used the space for events, and voters cast their ballots in the high-ceilinged, musty building.

A consultant for the city estimated in 2000 that it would cost $1.6 million to fix the building, add heat and air conditioning, and make it earthquake-proof. At that time, the city took in $7,700 in rent a year and spent $82,000 for custodial services, utilities and insurance.

In 2003, the city decided to close the building to the public.

Firefighters and police then used the building for training, officials said. Police practiced SWAT team exercises, building searches and how to handle barricaded suspects, Assistant Police Chief Mike Harden said.

Among the items lost in the fire were ball gowns and wedding dresses dating to the 1800s; a championship-winning bow and arrow set from the 1930s; bedroom sets and parlor sets; cane, camera and medical collections; branding irons; four pianos; and a carousel horse, according to Cultural Services Manager Wayne A. Mathes, who is in charge of the McHenry Mansion and museum and the city's Landmark Preservation Commission.

A nine-foot grand piano that belonged to the Hogan family, and little else, was judged to be salvageable after a specialized team poked through the rubble in February. The city saved 10,000 of the building's bricks for potential commemorative projects, in addition to an antique balcony.

Mathes heard about Castillo's arrest Sunday evening.

"It really doesn't bring anything back," he said.

Authorities ask anyone with information about the blaze to call fire investigator Doug Machado at the Modesto Fire Department's Fire Investigation Unit at 491-5722.

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at eraguso@modbee.com or 578-2235.

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