The Brickhouse Restaurant Fire Settlement
By Lainie Steelman
McDonough County Voice 8/1/2013
Bushnell – More than two years following a fire that destroyed a downtown restaurant, the burned-out pile of rubble remains – along with mounting frustration amongst nearby business owners and city officials.
The Brickhouse Restaurant, 455 W. Main St., was lost to a fire in the early morning hours of March 10, 2011; it had been open for just three months. Buildings adjacent to the restaurant sustained heavy smoke and water damage.
Although there were no injuries resulting from the fire, one occupant in an adjacent apartment escaped.
Six months after the fire, two of the restaurant’s four co-owners, Rick Roberts and his wife Allison Roberts, were arrested and charged with aggravated arson and arson in connection with the fire. Since the arrest, the case against both Roberts and cleanup of the rubble has been stalled. The case against both Roberts is still in a pretrial phase. According to McDonough County State’s Attorney James Hoyle, the case hinges on when the defense produces a report from an expert witness.
“It’s just been kind of hanging there waiting for this defense report,” he said.
The attorney for Allison Roberts, James LeFante, confirmed that the court appointed attorney representing Rick Roberts has retained an expert witness to produce a report on the cause of the Brickhouse fire, and that expert has yet to finish the job.
LeFante also pointed to the Roberts’ insurance company. He said the company won’t pay for the loss and clean-up of the Brickhouse restaurant building until the criminal case is resolved.
“The insurance company also investigated and brought in fire and electrical experts,” LeFante continued. “Neither one of them could say it was arson. Neither one of them.”
Another investigator also concluded that the cause of the Brickhouse fire is undetermined. James Tunney, with the Illinois State Fire Marshall’s Office, was on the scene of the fire and conducted interviews with the Bushnell Fire Department chief, Bushnell law enforcement, and Rick and Allison Roberts.
Tunney’s report states, “Due to extensive heat and fire damage, this investigator was unable to clearly define the exact cause of the fire and fire cause will be documented as undetermined in nature.”
Furthermore, Tunney recommended that a qualified electrical engineer examine the building’s electrical structure.
For those who must look at the unsightly hole on Bushnell’s downtown square, two years is long enough.
Mike Rench owns an insurance business three doors down from the remains of the Brickhouse restaurant. His building had smoke damage from the fire but reopened four days later.
“Something needs to be done,” he said Wednesday morning. “It’s been two years and nothing’s been done.”
Lori Worthington, who owns Lulu’s restaurant next to Mike Rench’s business, said the mess is a safety hazard. Wednesday morning she collected a fallen brick off the sidewalk.
“What scares me the most is that the bricks are falling,” Worthington said. “It’s just disgusting. It’s been two years.”
Worthington also said she’s concerned about the fence the city of Bushnell placed in front of the rubble. She said a child could easily slip through a loose corner and step into the area.
Bushnell city attorney Liz Duvall has been talking to the attorneys involved in the case against both Roberts. She said the city is prepared to start moving toward demolition of the Brickhouse remains once the attorneys give the OK and the statuary rules and notification procedures are followed.
“The alderman and the mayor have told me it’s a priority,” Duvall said.
Bushnell Mayor Jim Evans said he wants the are cleaned up because there has been expressed interest from several parties in developing the property.
“Oh yeah, there’s people interested,” he said. “And I’m glad, because nobody likes empty stores, especially one that looks like a war zone.”
Following her arrest, Allison Roberts posted a $75,000 bond. Rick Roberts posted a $125,000 bond after his arrest, but according to court documents, on Nov. 11, 2011, he surrendered his bond back to the person who posted it and was returned to McDonough County Jail.
Aggravated arson, a Class X felony, carries a sentence of six to 30 years in prison. Arson, a Class 2 felony, is punishable by three to seven years in prison.