CHICAGO (Sun-Times Media Wire) - A disgruntled employee faces federal arson charges in connection with a blaze that destroyed a huge, southwest suburban furniture warehouse last week, to the tune of an estimated $70 million in damage, the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting.
Ruben Antonio Ochoa Cruz, 20, of Joliet, was charged with one count of arson Friday in the fire that ravaged The RoomPlace warehouse at 2501 Internationale Parkway in Woodridge.
Cruz, who authorities say confessed to the crime, made an initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Chicago, where U.S. Magistrate Judge Maria Valdez ordered him taken into custody. He is being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center and is next scheduled to return to court for a detention hearing May 4.
A criminal complaint accuses Cruz, who worked as a high lift operator in the warehouse, of using a Bic lighter to spark the April 21 fire after meeting with his supervisors regarding an issue with his work attendance.
Cruz, who had been employed at the warehouse for about seven months, told investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives that he committed the crime because he was angry with his employer.
“What led up to him setting the fire was a heated argument that he had with his superiors, who were going to dock some of his vacation time because he didn’t show up for work on other days, and he was very upset,” said ATF spokesman Tom Ahern.
“He did in fact give the details of the argument to our investigators, and said that he was upset, so he used a small lighter to light a packaging slip, then dropped it onto a piece of furniture,” said Ahern.
“That ignited the fire, and he then backed his forklift out of the aisle and went to a different aisle, and the fire alarm went off shortly after. He said, ‘They’re always pushing me,’ and so he lit this fire to relieve some of his stress and tension,” Ahern said.
Approximately 65 employees were working at the furniture distribution center at the time of the “very fast-moving” fire, and it was “fortunate” that all escaped safely, Ahern said.
According to the complaint, it took firefighters from about 30 departments seven hours to extinguish the blaze; the 700,000-square-foot warehouse was burned to the ground.
In announcing the charges, U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon and Jeffery Magee, ATF Special Agent in Charge of the Chicago Field Division, praised the bravery of the firefighters who worked tirelessly to extinguish the blaze.
Fire crews were called to the warehouse at about 5 p.m., according to the Lemont Fire Protection District. The fire was brought under control by about 9:30 p.m., but not before more than 100 firefighters from 30 suburban departments were called in to help with the blaze, officials said. No firefighters were injured.
Led by the ATF National Response Team, the investigation was assisted by the Woodridge Police Department, Lemont Police Department and the Office of the Illinois State Fire Marshal.
“ATF investigators with the National Response Team are highly trained and some of the best in the field. They determined where the origin of the fire took place, and then through analysis of where all the employees were at that time, his scanner shows that he was in the immediate vicinity of where the fire was at that time. And when he was brought in for questioning today, he did tell us what happened,” said Ahern.
“A fire of this magnitude, with this much damage and destruction, to have the cause and origin determined and the arsonist in custody and charged within a week is an indication of just tenacious, top-rated investigation.”
If convicted, Cruz faces five to 20 years in prison.