Arson fears return to JP
SOUTH ST.—Maria’s Hair Fashion & Day Spa at 138A South St. burned in a suspicious fire on Jan. 6, just five months after reopening in the wake of a 2006 arson blaze.
This week’s fire came exactly one year and one day after yet another suspicious fire destroyed a second Maria’s salon in Hyde Park.
The early-morning blaze is raising fears that Jamaica Plain’s history of still-unsolved business arsons and suspicious fires in 2005-06 is about to repeat itself.
“They’re breaking my heart again,” owner Maria Joseph said to the Gazette in an interview on Wednesday, referring to the suspicion an arsonist or arsonists are responsible. “But I won’t let them take away my dream,” she said, adding that she plans to reopen the business where she puts in long hours working every day.
Local business owner Fred Ciampa, the first witness to notify the Fire Department about the Jan. 6 fire, told the Gazette that it appeared that automobile tires were placed inside Maria’s and set on fire.
“It looked like tires on fire,” he said. “They might have rolled tires in there.”
Ciampa, owner of Centre Street’s Same Old Place restaurant, said he saw Maria’s on fire as he drove to work around 3:55 a.m.
“I come up, and there are flames flying all over the place,” he said. “Flames were shooting out of there.”
Later that morning, debris littered the sidewalk in front of the salon and large scorch marks stained the storefront above the broken windows. It appeared that the rear of the salon was relatively undamaged.
Boston Fire Department spokesperson Steve MacDonald said the fire was relatively minor, affecting mostly the outside of the building. It was a one-alarm fire that caused an estimated $40,000 in damage, he said, adding that he had not heard reports of burning tires.
“The fire started at the front of the building, at the entrance,” MacDonald said. “It didn’t really get into the building.”
“I don’t know anything. I don’t know how it happened,” said Nick Skourtis, owner of the building at 138-142 South St. that includes Maria’s along with recently renovated storefronts still vacant after the 2006 fire.
Speaking from the scene of the fire, Skourtis said it appeared the blaze started in the front of the salon. Arson investigators were on the scene, he said. Skourtis said it appeared the other storefronts were undamaged.
Maria Joseph said she is very grateful to her clients who have stayed with her throughout the salon’s history. She said she is determined to reopen and is waiting now to hear from the business’s insurance company.
Paul Joseph, who is Maria’s husband and a Boston Police sergeant, helps out with the business when he can, she said. Asked about the possibility that Paul Joseph is being targeted as a police officer, Boston Police Department (BPD) spokesperson Elaine Driscoll only said that BPD is joining with the Fire Department in investigating the blaze. She also declined to “confirm or deny” any internal BPD investigation of Paul Joseph in relation to the fires.
About two hours before this week’s South Street fire, a fire destroyed a row of restaurants in the Fenway. MacDonald said that cause of that fire is under investigation, hampered by the massive destruction.
“The investigators, of course, are aware of the two previous fires that hair salon suffered,” MacDonald said.
Yet another business fire in JP this week will leave the Galway House restaurant at 720 Centre St. closed until next week. But that Jan. 4 fire was definitely caused by an accidentally overheating refrigerator, according to Galway House owner Ed Lanzillo.
“We were strictly an accident,” Lanzillo told the Gazette. “It’s not a ring of terror.”
But, Lanzillo added, the Maria’s fire makes him nervous. “There’s a vendetta out there somewhere,” he said. “That’s somebody without a soul.”
“I’m really concerned now,” said state Rep. Liz Malia about the “incendiary beginning to the year in JP.” Speaking at the fire scene, Malia said she had already heard from a worried resident of the nearby South Street housing development.
“It’s tough for neighborhood people to have no information…They’re scared,” she said.
“It’s scary, to be honest with you,” said Ciampa of the blaze. “Being in business, you don’t want to see this happen to your community. Especially with the economy the way it is, you don’t want to be looking over your shoulder.”
Last summer, Maria’s became the first business to return to the renovated South Street storefronts. Ciampa noted that Skourtis had done a “beautiful job” on the rehab.
Randace Moore, director JP Centre/South Main Streets, said she would encourage Maria Joseph to apply for the city’s ReStore Boston funding for business rehab. “We would work with her in getting her feet back on the ground,” Moore said.
Carlos Icaza, president of the Jamaica Plain Business and Professional Association, visited the burned-out storefront the day of the fire. He declined to comment.
Fires, both accidental and deliberately set, plagued JP in 2005 and 2006, wreaking destruction that still mars Centre and South streets. The most prominent accidental fire victim was the First Baptist Church of Jamaica Plain on Centre Street, which is still rebuilding.
But community fear came from three arson fires, all carried out very early in the morning. Speculation about possible connections among the fires was rampant, but no arrests have been made.
El Oriental de Cuba, a popular Hyde Square restaurant, was firebombed in July 2005, destroying the business and leaving residents living above it homeless. El Oriental has since reopened.
On March 24, 2006, Maria’s and five other businesses in the same row of storefronts were destroyed by an arson fire. A suspect pried open a security grate on Maria’s, poured in gasoline and set it ablaze. Witnesses reported seeing a man carrying a hammer run from the scene and flee in a Lexus.
In August 2006, Century 21 Pondside Realty and two other businesses at 619 Centre St. burned after what witnesses reported as a firebomb-ing. The building remains boarded up and burnt-out. Century 21 now operates in another Centre Street office.
On Jan. 5, 2008, a Hyde Park building where Maria’s had relocated burned in a suspicious fire. The blaze also damaged other businesses and left 20 people homeless.
That Hyde Park building was owned by Christ Stamatos, who also owns and operates the Century 21 business firebombed in 2006. Stamatos also owns many other buildings in JP and other neighborhoods.
Stamatos is of Greek-American ethnicity. So are the owners of the other local buildings victimized by arson: Skourtis on South Street, and John Kariotis at El Oriental.
Local authorities have declined to comment on any apparent coincidences or connections among the fires.
John DeHaan, one of the world’s top arson experts, told the Gazette in 2006 that a criminal extortion racket or ruthless real estate speculators could be behind the arsons.
DeHaan also said it was unlikely that the fires were insurance fraud or hate crimes against Greek-Americans, and almost certainly were not the work of a lone pyromaniac—a person who gains psychological and often sexual satisfaction from setting fires.
Sandra Storey contributed to this article