Central Hotel arson suspect nabbed

The mystery of the Central Hotel Fire is being solved. Last week, Durango Police Department investigators apprehended the man they believed deliberately set the July 29 fire, which destroyed a downtown Durango building, left 24 people homeless and closed the El Rancho Tavern.

Durango’s largest structure fire in more than 30 years, the Central Hotel Fire ripped through the upper floors of the historic structure at 975 Main Ave. More than 60 firefighters from multiple agencies responded to the blaze, which was believed to have started in a hallway on the third floor. Firefighters received a dispatch call at 12:58 p.m. and about 40 minutes after arriving, fire crews were forced to go on the “defensive” because of the intense burning conditions of the fire. Two hours later, crews were back inside and eventually got a handle on the fire.

Along with cleanup, an investigation of the fire’s cause began July 30. Two days later, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation released its findings. Thanks to the help of an 8-year-old labrador, the CBI identified numerous instances of hydrocarbons on the stairways and in hallways, indicating the presence of flammable liquids and a deliberately set fire. Based on the findings, accidental causes were ruled out.

Last Friday, investigators located the man they believe was responsible for setting the fire. With the assistance of Cortez police, Durango police arrested 45-year-old Weaver Marc Ponds, of Cortez. The arrest came after nearly nonstop investigation by five Durango Police investigators, five Durango Fire & Rescue Authority personnel as well as members of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. After the fire dynamics were determined, investigators continued conducting interviews and searches, which eventually led to Ponds.  

Ponds had been living on the fourth floor of the Central Hotel for approximately two weeks prior to the blaze. Ponds was first contacted by investigators Aug. 2. Because of inconsistent statements and additional witness accounts, Ponds was interviewed again on Aug. 4 in Cortez. At the conclusion of the interview, he was taken into custody.

Ponds’ criminal history does not reflect any prior arson arrests. He has, however, been arrested on charges of burglary, domestic violence and numerous alcohol-related offenses. The motive behind the blaze remains unknown.

The investigation still remains active, and Durango Police continue to seek witnesses of the fire and are particularly interested in finding a man who was walking with his dog on 10th Street at about 1 p.m. on July 29, just as the fire was starting. It is believed that this man and Ponds probably bumped into each other as Ponds was exiting the rear side door of the building. Ponds was transferred from Montezuma County Jail to La Plata County jail this week, where he is being held on a $250,000 bond for charges of First Degree Arson, a class three felony, pending formal charges.

Meanwhile, many of the building’s 24 residents are still homeless. The Southwest Colorado Chapter of the American Red Cross has provided the fire’s victims with food, clothing, temporary housing, medication and medical health support. However, finding more permanent housing remains the largest challenge.

“Right now, our goal is to help meet some of their longer term needs,” said Marilyn Hejny, chapter executive of the American Red Cross. “One of the challenges is identifying suitable housing. We are working in partnership with other local social service agencies, like Volunteers of America, Salvation Army and Housing Solutions of Southwest Colorado, to seek out apartments or rental homes.”

Members of the community who know of potential rental housing are asked to call Irene Berry at Housing Solutions of Southwest Colorado at 259-1086, Ext. 22.

Deitch disputes primary results

Tuesday’s hotly contested primary election may still be up in the air. Former Durango City Councilor and Fort Lewis College professor, Joe Colgan, declared victory on the evening of Aug. 8. However, Jeff Deitch, his opponent for the Democratic nomination for the 59th District State House, refused to concede and expressed doubts about the validity of the election.

In a relatively slim turnout, voters from La Plata, Archuleta and Montezuma counties cast ballots in Tuesday’s election. Colgan took 63 percent of the vote to Deitch’s 37 percent. La Plata County Clerk Linda Daley characterized voter turnout as “low, low, low,” remarking that only 6 percent of the eligible electorate made the trip to the polls.

In addition to the low turnout, Deitch had concerns about the

legitimacy of the election. He noted that the seals on two voting machines at Needham Elementary School had been broken.

“At this point, I believe that it is alarming and casts a shadow over the validity of the election,” Deitch said.

On Wednesday, the candidate was not ready to contest the election or to concede to Colgan. Instead, Deitch said he had started researching his options.

“At this point, I don’t know nearly all of the facts,” Deitch said. “But I can’t concede an election, the validity of which is in question at this moment.”

On the flip side, Colgan is celebrating a victory and looking forward to the real election on Nov. 7, where he will face Republican candidate Ellen Roberts. “I’m glad the first phase of this thing is over,” he said. “I’m really pleased with the outcome, and I’m looking forward to the campaign against Ellen Roberts.”

Colgan said he will continue to campaign on the same platform: the environment, health care, education and what he calls “responsible spending in state government.”

Daley said that the issue of the broken seals has yet to be resolved. And while the two machines were not counted in the election, they likely account for fewer than 100 votes.

“Those machines are still being held,” Daley said. “They’re locked in the vault. We’re getting the election judges to give us written explanations of why the seals were broken, and then we’ll run it by the Colorado Secretary of State.”

Plague spreads through the county

Bubonic plague is making a strong showing locally this summer. A La Plata County man was diagnosed with plague last week, becoming the third county resident within the last five weeks to be treated for the disease, and the fifth case in La Plata County this year. The man was released from the hospital and is recovering at home, but the spread of the disease is causing concern among officials at San Juan Basin Health Department.

“I am quite concerned by the situation in La Plata County right now” said Joe Fowler, Regional Epidemiologist for the health department. “The entire state of Colorado has never had more than four cases in a single year.”  

Fowler added that the season for plague is just beginning, and that local residents should be on the lookout.

“We are heading into the late summer and early fall months when plague typically peaks in Colorado,” Fowler said. “Based on the intensity and widespread distribution of the current outbreak, I consider the risk of additional human cases to be high.”

Bubonic plague is the most common form of the disease in humans and begins two to six days after the bite of an infected flea, or contact with an infected rodent or cat. Typical symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, sudden onset of fever or chills, severe headache, extreme exhaustion, and a general feeling of illness. Bubonic plague can be successfully treated when diagnosed promptly. If you have a history of possible exposure to infected rodents or fleas and are experiencing these symptoms, consult a physician as soon as possible.

Residents should limit exposure to rodents, rodent-proof homes and eliminate rodent habitat. In addition, cats and dogs should be kept from roaming, and pet owners should consider treating their animals for fleas. For more information on plague, visit www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/plague.

Shan Wells named Best of Colorado

Local artist, political firebrand andDurango Telegraph cartoonist, Shan Wells, has been named among the Best of Colorado. Wells has been selected to join the Best of Colorado artist show, which will run in the Denver International Airport from August 2006 through January 2007.

The exhibit is being launched in conjunction with the Denver Art Museum and will include the work of 75 of Colorado’s top artists, including Wells.

“Colorado is a difficult place to get post-modern work seen, so I’m very happy to see Denver becoming a stronger force for contemporary art with the opening of the Denver Art Museum’s expansion wing,” Wells commented. “As awareness of the importance of art grows, I have hope that the Colorado Council on the Arts will be refunded to its pre-recession levels so that money for artwork that is not an easy product or commodity will have a chance to flower a bit. I’m looking forward to showing some work, having a beer with my peers, and kibitzing.”

For more information, visit: www.flydenver.com/guide/ art/call.asp.

– compiled by Will Sands



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows