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DeKalb City Manager calls Ridgebrook apartment scene "shameful"

City leaders respond to situation that displaced 140 people Tuesday night

DeKALB – City leaders issued harsh judgment on Hunter Properties during a news conference about a Tuesday night fire at 808 Ridge Drive, where tenants were forced to leap from the Ridgebrook Apartment complex to escape a blaze, including a mother who had to throw her baby out of a third-floor window in a desperate attempt to get to safety.

When DeKalb firefighters arrived about 11 p.m. at the complex, they found the front half of the building engulfed in smoke and fire, and tenants climbing out of windows, some of them falling from the third floor to the ground below.

City Manager Bill Nicklas called out Hunter Properties during Wednesday’s news conference. The Ridgebrook complex has been the scene of multiple arson fires in recent years, he said, and city officials have tried to ramp up security measures in the building despite what Nicklas said was lack of action on the property managers’ part.

“Last night what we saw was people leaping out of windows,” Nicklas said. “That’s not acceptable. And why is that? Did they know not to use the doors? That was what they considered to be their best resources under the circumstances. It’s shameful. It speaks to a cynical indifference of that particular complex. It speaks to a business model that puts a return on investment ahead of the welfare of the people the complex serves. As chief law enforcement officer for the city, I intend to see that that stops.”

One person was injured when their femoral artery was severed by broken glass as they kicked out a window and is in serious condition, Nicklas said.

Hunter Properties’ attorney, Clay Campbell of Sycamore-based Campbell & Johnson PC, said he was a “little dismayed” by Nicklas’ comments at the news conference.

“It was seeming to blame Hunter Properties for the actions of a criminal and an arsonist,” Campbell said in a phone interview Wednesday. “We have all the required smoke detectors and fire alarm system.”

Campbell said he has been working with Nicklas, as well as DeKalb Fire Chief Jeff McMaster and interim Police Chief John Petragallo after a June 26 arson occurred in the 808 Ridge Drive building and law enforcement officials discovered the security cameras did not work at the time.

The cause of the fire still is under investigation, but the building has been condemned, and the American Red Cross, as well as the DeKalb County Housing Authority, are working to find shelter for the displaced residents, many of whom have children.

McMaster said the fire is being ruled intentional after crews discovered mattresses were set ablaze in a third-floor common area.

“It is under investigation but it has been led on that this was intentionally set,” McMaster said after the news conference. “It wasn’t accidental, but what the motive is behind it, we don’t know. It definitely wasn’t a mattress spontaneously combusting.”

The building has been the scene of multiple incidents of confirmed or suspected arson in recent years, with at least one fire being set while authorities were in the building investigating another fire.

The problem had seemed to go away, without anyone arrested, after June 2018, but when a pair of suspicious fires were extinguished by residents this June, Nicklas said he ordered a fire watch in the building, as well as ensuring that all fire exit lights and smoke alarms be in working order within days.

“They did get the cameras up; they were working, and because they were working, we got a glimpse of somebody who is a suspect,” Nicklas said.

The building has been condemned by the city and will remain that way for the time being, Nicklas said.

Petragallo said law enforcement officials expect to have an update on the motives behind whomever lit the fire within 24 hours.

“We don’t want to compromise our case to divulge too much information for fear that it could harm it,” Petragallo said during the news conference. “What I saw last night was a lot of teamwork, and it was a very chaotic scene.”

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