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Firefighters work to extinguish a blaze that destroyed a heritage building at Yonge and Gould Streets on Jan. 3, 2011. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Firefighters work to extinguish a blaze that destroyed a heritage building at Yonge and Gould Streets on Jan. 3, 2011. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

New details released in unsolved heritage-building arson Add to ...

New details have emerged in the arson that destroyed the 122-year-old building at the corner of Yonge and Gould Streets.

The heritage building went up in flames in the early hours of Jan. 3, leaving it in ruins. Days after, police released grainy surveillance images – taken less than an hour before the blaze started – of someone near a laneway that went to the building’s back entrance. The individual was named a person of interest by police and the six-alarm fire was ruled arson soon after by investigators.

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After reviewing more security footage, the lead investigator now says it was the third time that person, believed to be a man, walked to the back entrance of the building in the dark.

“The person walks down the back laneway and specifically, without hesitation, goes exactly to the area where they have to go to gain access to this building,” Toronto police Detective Debbie Harris told The Globe and Mail.

The man is hooded and brings a backpack each time, the officer said, and never looks near security cameras on his route to and from the building. “This person knew what they were doing,” she said.

It’s possible the man was becoming familiar with the building, learning how to gain access, or stashing something there, she said.

In the coming weeks a specialist who visited the scene and reviewed the surveillance images will finish determining an almost exact height and weight of the man, Det. Harris said. It’s a new technique that’s so precise she hopes it will narrow down persons of interest or help someone make a connection about a potential suspect.

“I have absolutely no doubt that somebody knows who this person is. I believe that this person had a second person involved in facilitating him getting to that area,” she said, noting there may have been a vehicle involved.

Because two of firefighters at the scene fell through the building’s roof, potential charges could include arson endangering life and arson, Det. Harris said.

A section of the building’s brick facade crumbled onto Gould Street in April of 2010 and made it unsafe, forcing out the businesses operating there. The fire happened just six months after the three-storey building, formerly the Empress Hotel, was designated a heritage building, and one week before its owners were scheduled to meet with city officials to fast-track its restoration.

Det. Harris said she’s interviewed the former tenants and the owners of the property, listed as a numbered company belonging to the Lalani family. Everyone co-operated in their interviews, she said.

“Whatever they need we have no reluctance giving them whatever access or whatever they need,” Al Lalani Jr. said when contacted by The Globe.

Plans for the site, which sits empty and fenced off now that the building has been knocked down, are unknown, he said. “We just want to get this resolved and kind of progress forward,” Mr. Lalani said.

Soon after the fire, security footage was taken from local businesses, a police camera on Yonge Street, and another camera on Ryerson University campus, which the hooded figure cut across. Meanwhile, the investigation conducted by the Office of the Fire Marshal concluded around April or May, lead investigator Mike Ross said.

“A fire destroys evidence, but it also creates it, so it’s kind of two-edged sword,” Mr. Ross said.

His investigation, which relies solely on what was found at the scene and not surveillance imagery, began with 10 days spent there and then months examining evidence and debris after. He won’t say exactly what determined the fire was arson. “I’ll just say there are multiple pieces of evidence that put us there.”

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