Oak Harbor Roller Barn arson suspected; zombie exonerated

A basement fire that nearly claimed the Roller Barn in Oak Harbor earlier this month may have been the result of arson.

Detective Sgt. Teri Gardner with the Oak Harbor Police Department confirmed that a criminal investigation has been opened following a fire expert's determination that the cause is "suspicious" in nature. She declined to say whether police know how the fire started or if any suspects have been identified.

"I can't release any details at this time," Gardner said.

On March 6, the Oak Harbor Fire Department responded to a 911 call at 1:10 p.m. that reported smoke coming from the Roller Barn's basement. About the same time, an automated system alerted the department that the building's sprinkler system had been activated.

Completed in 1913 by Dutch builder Otto VanDyk, the huge wooden structure is nearly 100 years old and is widely considered a historic structure. The basement has been converted for use as a haunted house by the building's owner, the Snohomish County Boys and Girls Club.

Firefighters were on the scene within minutes, but several department officials have said it was not their efforts that saved the building from destruction.

"Had that sprinkler system not been there, we probably would have been left with a large rubble of material," Oak Harbor Battalion Chief Ray Merrill said.

Also the fire marshal, Merrill was the department's lead investigator in the Roller Barn fire and is the one who determined the cause to be suspicious in nature. Merrill said he looked at every possible cause, from examining points of origin to nearby electrical devices.

That includes researching a mechanical dummy in a coffin that was stored near where the fire occurred. The device, a Gemmy Crawling Zombie, was unplugged at the time but Merrill checked with the manufacturer to see if any recalls had been issued. None had and the three-year-old prop checked out. Merrill said he is left with a single conclusion.

"I've ruled out everything but a suspicious fire," he said.

Should police determine that the blaze was started by a person, the circumstances may dictate any charges brought forward. For example, children playing with matches may result in a less charge while an adult purposely attempting to destroy the building could be charged with something more serious.

"It all has to do with intent and the value of loss," Merrill said.

He estimated the damages at no more than $1,000. Anyone with information is urged to call Oak Harbor police at 279-4600 and ask the detective's division.

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