It took Tom Calkins more than a decade to turn a former convenience store into one of Portland's most celebrated specialty markets and the Northwest's leading purveyor of beer. It took only one night, on Sept. 18, 2001, for the Burlingame Grocery to be reduced to ashes by a sudden, spectacular blaze--a fire authorities later concluded was arson.

Today, more than eight months after his dream went up in smoke, Calkins says he can't imagine who set the fire. And, thanks to a dispute with his insurance company, he's been unable to reopen his store.

"I'm just a normal guy that was trying to make a living at a business, and we had the unfortunate accident of having the business burn down," says Calkins. "And now we're kind of caught between a rock and a hard place."

Or, perhaps, between a match and a hot seat.

WW has learned that police and fire investigators do have a suspect in the Burlingame blaze. As Calkins knows, they believe their evidence points to one man--him.

Four weeks after the fire, to persuade a judge to OK a search of Calkins' home, the Portland police laid out the case against him in a sworn affidavit. The 11-page public document provides never-reported details about the night of the fire which raise questions about Calkins' alibi and suggest his business was struggling in the face of new competition.

Last month, in a complaint that echoes the affidavit, Calkins' insurance company filed a civil suit against him, accusing him of the "dishonest and criminal acts" of torching his store and lying to cover it up.

Calkins, 59, insists he didn't do it. Fire investigators won't discuss specifics of the case, which is now in the hands of the district attorney's office, but they seem confident in the conclusion reached by the affidavit. "I don't turn a case over to the DA if I don't think it's a good case," says the Fire Bureau's Rick McGraw, the lead investigator on the Burlingame fire. "I don't waste a day on a case if I don't think it's a strong one; if I put eight months into a case, it's a real good case."

Attorneys for Grocers Insurance Company are similarly adamant. "We wouldn't file this case if we didn't think we had the evidence to prevail," says Joel Wilson of Bullivant Houser Bailey. "We don't do this lightly. This is not a negotiating ploy."

In 1946, the Burlingame community was farming territory, and the corner of Southwest Terwilliger Boulevard and Taylors Ferry Road was a meadow. That year, Vito Chimienti and Vito Patella, his stepson, fresh back from World War II, opened a feed store at the corner. They turned it into a grocery, soda fountain and variety store as a neighborhood grew up around it.

In the early 1980s, developer Homer Williams bought the grocery, renting the building from the Chimienti family, which still owns the building. In 1986, he sold the store to Calkins, who at the time worked for a local beer distributor.

Calkins, who'd owned and operated several Portland bars, had big plans. He and his wife, Jackie, turned it into a store that, in addition to selling toilet paper and M&Ms, offered high-end cheeses, chocolates, pastries and espresso, as well as fresh produce.

But where Burlingame gained acclaim was in alcohol. The market had one of the city's best selections of wines, approximately 2,000 labels, along with more than 400 kinds of beer. At a time when Portland was becoming known as Beervana, Tom Calkins liked to boast that he had every beer that could legally be sold in the state. His specialty was aging certain beers and selling the improved product at a premium price. By the mid-'90s, the Burlingame Grocery had become a Portland landmark, a staple of local food columns and national beer publications.

"They had a huge beer selection way before anyone else thought to," says Thomas Dalldorf, editor and publisher of Celebrator Beer News, a San Francisco-based publication. "Now, of course, everyone is dipping into that market." But at the time of the fire, he adds, "without a doubt, Burlingame Grocery was still the premier beer vendor in the area."

Calkins, a heavyset man with glasses and a shock of white hair, leased some of the grocery space to an auto-detailing shop and the restaurant Chez Jose. The corner, within walking distance of Lewis & Clark College, turned into the unofficial center of the upscale neighborhood.

"I used to go in there every day," says Michael O'Connell, a drama teacher who lives a block away from the store. "He really instituted a great community aspect to the grocery. Employees were really friendly. They were my friends in there. Everybody I know is just devastated by the fire."

While violent crimes get most of the attention from the media and public officials, arsons present a huge problem for law-enforcement agencies. In Portland, a team of eight gun-toting, badge-flashing, police-certified Fire Bureau investigators and one Police Bureau detective investigates approximately 500 arsons each year. Last year, arsons were responsible for $21.7 million in damages statewide.

One of the easier crimes to commit, arson is also one of the hardest to solve. (See "City of Blazes," below.). Forget the investigative tools of other crimes: In arsons, witnesses are rare and the evidence is usually destroyed. There are no fingerprints, no shell casings, no DNA samples.

Unless the cause of a fire is clearly accidental, the arson unit goes to work. Typically they start while the fire is in progress: taking photos of the blaze, using a thermal imaging device to map its hottest parts, interviewing witnesses, cops and firefighters on scene for any shred of information. Upon exiting a burning building for a break, firefighters may find themselves describing what they saw and felt: Did it feel hotter to the left or to the right? When you doused the fire in one spot, did the flames stay down, or come right back?

After the fire has died out, investigators go over the site, reconstruct the scene as best they can, then take it apart again, testing their theories with what little evidence remains.

The temperature of a fire can offer clues, so they scrape layers off charred walls to see how deep the fire went. They peer at paint peels like a fortune teller studies tea leaves. They use their fingernails to scrape caked smoke residue off glass window panes, knowing that a thick layer indicates a long, slow burn. They check floor lamps and light fixtures, since in the furnace-like interior of a burning building, glass bulbs melt in the direction of the hottest part of the blaze.

At times, the puzzle pieces come together easily. At other times, however, the clues can be overwhelming. "You can't just take one of them, you have to look at all 50 of them," says McGraw. "Sometimes I ask all the firefighters to leave the room so I can think."

On the night of Sept. 18, fire inspector Jerry Butler immediately had "concerns" about the fire's origin, the police affidavit says. For one thing, the fire started less than 20 minutes after the manager closed up--as soon as there was nobody around to see it.

For another, the fire raged extremely quickly throughout the building. Although the Portland Fire Bureau responded just three minutes after being alerted by a 911 call made by a passerby at 11:17pm, the blaze was already so extreme that no one could enter the building through the front door to fight it.

"Flames were leaping 35 feet above the roof at times," says O'Connell, the neighbor, who walked his dog a few hundred yards up the hill to watch the conflagration. "There were 15 trucks out there, and yet they could not put it out."

It was a cool, dry night, and only a few stars peeked from between clouds when Calkins arrived at the scene, wearing khaki pants and a blue fleece pullover. A police perimeter kept bystanders back from the fire, but Calkins, identifying himself as the owner, was let through.

According to the affidavit, Calkins told fire inspector Butler he'd gotten a call from his alarm company saying the motion detectors had gone off; he said he'd told them not to contact the police, as he lived near the store and would check the building out himself. He also talked to Butler about his business. Eventually, Calkins had seen enough and drove back to his home in the Raleigh Hills, four miles west.

The entire building, including Chez Jose and the auto-detailing shop, was destroyed. The next day, the investigation began in earnest. Butler and McGraw teamed up with police detective William Law, who'd spent 12 years specializing in arson. Within 18 hours of the 911 call, Butler concluded that the fire started in a space that served as an employee break room and recycling center.

Now, they just had to figure out why.

As they picked through the ruins, firefighters found a video recorder, part of the store's system of security cameras, which appeared badly damaged. Late in the afternoon of Sept. 24, Butler called Law with what the cop described in his affidavit as a "revelation."

To their surprise, a video technician was able to make the tape work. It showed store manager Gary Lewis closing up and leaving for the night around 11 pm. A short time later, the affidavit says, the videotape shows a man walking "rather matter of factly" toward the break and recycling room. Shortly thereafter the same person left the way he came. Then, "within several minutes, a fire rapidly accelerated in the store," the affidavit says.

The fire eventually knocked out the store's electricity and stopped the video, but Butler thought the camera had caught enough of the suspected arson to provide an ID. According to the affidavit, when Butler called Law on Sept. 24, he said, "Bill, it's a set fire, and it looks like Tom Calkins on videotape."

That the videotape was running at all is remarkable. The camera was used primarily as a deterrent to shoplifting, and the tape normally ran out at the close of business hours or just a bit after, former manager Gary Nelson told WW. In any case, security videos almost never survive fires and implicate suspects, McGraw told WW. When they do, he said, "We bless the gods."

The day after Butler called him, Law viewed the video himself. According to the affidavit, he agreed that the person appeared to be Calkins. He noted that it appeared that the man on the tape "was wearing the same fleece pullover and khaki trousers I observed [Calkins] wearing" when he arrived at the scene of the fire.

McGraw, meanwhile, obtained a tape of the call that the alarm company made to Calkins' home to report an intruder at the store. Although the store owner had told investigators he personally had answered the phone, the tape showed that Jackie had taken the call. She told the alarm company that she did not know where Tom was, but would call him on his cell phone. When Jackie returned to the line, the affidavit says, she said her husband did not want the alarm company to send the police and would "check out the alarm himself."

On Oct. 16, Law and Butler interviewed Tom Calkins in person at the fire investigation unit on the second floor of the Fire Bureau's downtown headquarters on Southwest Ash Street. By now, the affidavit makes clear, Calkins was a suspect.

When Law asked Calkins about the phone call from the alarm company, the detective's affidavit says the store owner "told me that he was watching the post-game show of the Seattle Mariners baseball game when the alarm company called."

"I asked him if he spoke with the alarm company and he stated that he did," wrote Law. "I then confronted Calkins with the fact that I had a copy of a tape-recorded conversation between his wife and the alarm company."

Upon being told this, Calkins then changed his story, saying that when the call came in, he had momentarily left the post-game show to go outside and make sure the garage door was locked, the affidavit said.

But even this explanation raised questions. First, the phone call from the alarm company came at 11:21 pm. According to the affidavit, Law called Fox TV, which was carrying the Mariners game, and was told the post-game show had ended at 10:30 pm.

Second, according to the affidavit, Calkins told Law that he talked with Jackie only once before heading to the scene. Phone records obtained by the investigators, however, showed seven calls between his home phone and cell phone in the 12 minutes following the alarm company's call, the affidavit says.

Butler then hit Calkins with the coup de grâce: the news that a videotape of the suspect had survived the fire. Butler told Calkins that "he wanted to show him a videotape of the subject who set his store on fire."

Given the news of a possible breakthrough in the case, Law found Calkins' response to be noteworthy. "Calkins showed little or no interest in viewing this tape," the detective wrote, and declined Butler's invitation to move closer to the 20-inch screen when the tape was played. Instead, he remained sitting a dozen feet away.

After playing the videotape, the affidavit says, Law noted that of the eight people who had a key to the store, the person on the video most resembled one: Calkins. He then asked Calkins if he understood why the detective suspected him of being involved.

"It appears I could be," Calkins responded, according to the affidavit. But, he added, "I did not set my store on fire."

In an interview with WW, Calkins reiterated his innocence. Because he faces possible criminal charges, Calkins declined to talk about the specifics of the fire, or the investigators' affidavit, other than to say "a lot of the things they claimed are not true." Asked about the videotape, he did say that in his view, the person shown was so blurry as to be "indistinguishable."

Besides, Calkins asked, why would he burn down his own store?

"We'd been there 15 years, and I'd planned on being there a lot more years," he told WW. "It was a very profitable business, and we were making real good money there."

Not everyone agrees. Some former employees told WW that they believe the store was not making money at the time of the fire. One problem was temporary; construction on the Ross Island Bridge had hurt business, they say. But increased competition was also taking away customers.

In December 1996, Zupan's opened a store up just one mile away on Southwest Macadam Avenue, with a wide selection and lower prices. Calkins' wine steward, Richard Elden, left in 1999 to start his own store less than two miles away, taking many customers with him. And one year later, New Seasons opened up across the Sellwood Bridge.

Calkins declined to talk with WW specifically about the effect the competition had on business. But, according to the affidavit, on the night of the fire, Calkins told Butler that since Zupan's opened, his store's annual gross sales had dropped from $4 million to $2.5 million--which translates to a 38 percent plunge in revenue.

Grocers Insurance told police that Burlingame Grocery's inventory was insured for $975,000, according to the affidavit. Under the terms of the insurance policy, if Calkins reopened the store, he could receive the full value of his inventory and the equivalent of one year's profit. If he chose not to reopen his store, he could get six months' salary, six months' profit, and 60 to 70 percent of the value of his inventory.

Calkins declined to respond to these specifics, saying only, "I would not be as well off under the insurance settlement as I would have if my business would have continued on."

Calkins says he still hopes to reopen his store--preferably at the same location. But for now, he's spending much of his time talking to lawyers.

He's hired Dan O'Leary, a lawyer with Davis Wright Tremaine, to represent him in his insurance claim. He's also hired two private investigators to help bolster his claim of innocence.

Meanwhile, Grocers Insurance has hired two lawyers at Bullivant Houser Bailey and two private investigative firms to pursue its claim against Calkins. If the insurer can prove he was involved in the arson, it won't have to pay him. In addition, the May 3 civil complaint demands the return of nearly $45,000 the company says it advanced Calkins on his policy.

And everyone is waiting to see what the district attorney does. Fire investigators turned over the bulk of their case to prosecutors in November.

Detective Law, who retired in January, told WW he thought the case was in good shape when he left. "I thought that all of the dots had been connected prior to my retirement and we had a pretty good picture of who was involved in setting that fire," he said. "I'm surprised that it hasn't progressed any further."

Deputy District Attorney John Colby, who took over the case in January, told WW, "It's inappropriate for me to talk to the media about an ongoing investigation."

Arson carries a wide range of potential sentences, depending on the damage and whether it endangers lives. If a prosecutor decides to indict, therefore, it could be on either first- or second-degree arson, which could result in anything from probation to more than seven years in prison. It's also possible that the DA won't even bring the evidence to a grand jury. But even then, Calkins wouldn't be off the hook.

In the meantime, he has to contend with "an enormous amount of unsubstantiated rumors out there," says Howard Schechter, co-owner of Calkins' former neighbor, Chez Jose. "But I've known Tom Calkins for 15 years, and I can't in any way imagine him being able to do this."

--Brittany Schaeffer contributed to this article


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THE NEWS
Hiss and Vinegar

GRUDGE MATCH: PORTLAND ORGANIC WRESTLING VS. THE MAN

A busy bureaucrat may try to take Portland Organic Wrestling to the mat--but brash pseudo-wrestlers claim they'll body-slam the State!

POW's monthly fiestas of bunkum beatdowns, creepy characters and sodden hilarity have thrilled hundreds of beered-up acolytes at Satyricon. Fans are hotter than a Texas cheerleader about the installment scheduled for this Thursday, June 6. Cleaver faces The Devil for the POW title--and anti-promoter Vinnie Cleanhands says the outcome is already known to the Organic braintrust. "It's not a real contest," notes this Machiavelli of the mat.

Not so fast, says Oregon Boxing and Wrestling Commissioner Jim Cassidy. On May 14, Cassidy fired off a letter to Satyricon owner George Touhouliotis, threatening "civil penalties and fines" if the Old Town nightclub continued to promote POW.

At issue: Is POW's depraved slapstick "theater," or is it "real wrestling"? If it's "real wrestling," state law gives Cassidy's office jurisdiction over the event, and requires POW performers to submit to physical exams. But what's the difference between "theater" and "real pro wrestling," anyway? Even Cassidy admits it's a question of near-theological murkiness.

"Pro 'rasslin' is basically theater," quoth the quotable commish. "I certainly don't want to open up some can of worms by saying, 'Hey, you thespians can't do this.'" Still, Cassidy says he worries POW's presentation might deceive punters into thinking they're getting "real wrestling" instead of a stage show.

Cleanhands scoffs.

"You can't go to this show without realizing it's satire," he says. "And I can't present a satire of wrestling without mirroring the industry in some ways."

This squared-circle circus reared its mulleted head once before; last summer, Cassidy agreed that POW's shtick was satire, and POW adopted the ungainly official name "Satyricon Theater Troupe Presents Portland Organic Wrestling." This time, Cleanhands and company say they'll see Cassidy in court if he moves against POW.

"The state goes by this fiction that wrestling is real, when in fact everyone knows that's not the case," says John Sarre, an intern for lawyer Alex Hamalian, who's working Satyricon's side of the dispute. "We're going to argue that the Legislature and the Boxing Commission don't have the authority to regulate what POW does, because it's speech, not conduct."

While the Cleanhands camp plots possible injunctions, restraining orders and the like, Cassidy says he plans to head down to Satyricon on Thursday--with a state's attorney in tow. Beyond that, the commish insists he hasn't decided what action to take.

"I can't say what's going to go down," says Cassidy.

Watch this space! Meanwhile, Portland Organic Wrestling performs Thursday, June 6, at Satyricon, 125 NW 6th Ave., 243-2380. 9 pm. Cover.

OBSERVED

A fledgling effort to turn an abandoned downtown building into an all-ages venue and community center seeks help. Email savepdxmusic@yahoo.com for the 411...Dahlia and Auditory Sculpture knobmaster Keith Schreiner announced his engagement to local artist Elena Hawley during Dahlia's regular show at Ohm last week. Congratulations, kids!...YOUR BAND COULD BE FAMOUS, but only if you play MusicfestNW. Swear to God. Download the free app to the WW-sponsored festival at www.musicfestnw.com.

When I say "Kashmir," do you think, "Sweet, dude--Zeppelin rules"? You are the reader we want. Email tips, gossip, whatnot to hiss@wweek.com.