Suspicious Fire in Osceola

September 18, 2004 --Posted 11:45 a.m. CDT

Osceola, AR -- Suspicions are still smoldering in a Region 8 community over a fire that happened earlier in the week.

On Tuesday of this week, Osceola firefighters responded to an afternoon fire at an abandoned building in the heart of the downtown. The building is destroyed, but the surrounding structures are unscathed.

The Rivercross apartment building in downtown Osceola has been vacant for the past year. Valued at $250,000, this now charred structure, that once housed 22 apartments, is owned by Dennis Prude.

"They've been trying to get rid of me ever since I owned this building," said Prude.

Prude is talking about the city of Osceola. According to city records, Mr. Prude received a letter from the Code Enforcement Office in January of 2003, requesting he do something with his building because it was dilapidated, unsightly, and unsanitary.

"It was a hazard to the city, not only a hazard to the citizens, but it was an eye sore downtown," said Osceola Mayor Dickie Kennemore.

The city says Prude never responded.

"He never appeared before the city council," said Kennemore.

"I tried to do that and was talking to people that I needed to talk to, I was given the runaround," said Prude. "I just decided to sell it to someone that could go along and agree with to do what they needed to do to this building."

That brings in Chris Neely, a developer from Memphis with recent high hopes to purchase and renovate the building.

"I got a lot of resistance from the Mayor, he told me the property should not be developed," said Neely.

"It was my plan to let Mr. Neely come to the city council and make his proposal," said Kennemore.

But the hopes to renovate what Neely is calling the best speculative property in Osceola extinguished on Tuesday, when the property went up in flames in broad daylight. Firefighters say they chose to salvage surrounding buildings because they were occupied. The Fire Department suspects arson was involved.

"I noticed they were putting water on the buildings around my building, and not my building," said Prude.

The biggest complaint coming from Mr. Prude is that the Fire Department is about a football field away from the burnt building. He says it took them about 30 minutes to respond.

"The fire came in at 15:22 which is 3:22, we responded at 3:23," said Assistant Fire Chief Mike Cox.

"They pretty much just watched my building burn to the ground," said Prude.

"The building fire had vented in through the roof, and was heavily involved, I would not put men in the alley way or in that type of a situation where they had that type of fire weight over their head," said Cox.

"With the fire wall that you can see in this property, there's no way that that property should have even been allowed to burn," said Neely.

"From what we could tell it was vacant, and we fought it like we thought we should," said Cox.

"I just want to know why my building wasn't put out appropriately like everyone else in America," asked Prude.

"There's something very suspicious about it," said Neely.

"If the fire happened today, I would fight it the same way as I did the other day," said Cox.

"I support my fire department, yes," said Mayor Kennemore.

"As executive heads of the department and this city they should not have let that fire to burn," said Neely.

Mr. Prude and Neely expect to seek damages from the city. They say they have been unfairly treated and they want to be compensated for their loss.