Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The fire that claimed the life of San Antonio firefighter Scott Deem has been ruled arson, and authorities on Wednesday arrested the owner of the gym where the May blaze broke out.
Emond Johnson, 39, was arrested Wednesday morning on suspicion of murder and arson for the May 18 fire at the Ingram Square shopping center that killed Deem and caused severe injuries to two other firefighters.
"[Johnson] was brought in for questioning, and subsequently confessed to starting the fire," San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said at a press briefing at Public Safety Headquarters Wednesday afternoon. "[The fact that] a person caused this – yes, we are angry about that. But this will galvanize this organization and continue to make us a great fire department."
Johnson owned the Spartan Box gym, one of the businesses in the strip mall where the four-alarm fire occurred. He told investigators he set the fire after using a disposable cigarette lighter to ignite a mixture of gasoline and oil spilled at the gym, according to arrest documents obtained by KENS-5. He wanted to get out of his lease, he said, and had already received eviction notices.
Johnson faces first-degree felony charges for the offenses of murder and arson that caused Deem's death, Bexar County District Attorney Nicholas "Nico" LaHood said during the press briefing. In addition, he faces two first-degree felony charges for arson causing bodily injury to firefighters Brad Phipps and Robert Vasquez, and two first-degree felony charges for arson to a building for the shopping center and a thrift store. Johnson also faces an unrelated third-degree felony assault charge involving domestic violence, LaHood said.
Deem, a 31-year-old SAFD veteran of six years, died amid heavy smoke and heat when his station was the first to respond to the large fire at the strip center. He became the first local firefighter to fall in the line of duty in the last 20 years. A total of 83 SAFD units responded to the wind-whipped blaze that destroyed the gym and a nearby Texas Thrift Store. Deem's Station 35 was the first on the scene.
"The conclusions speak for themselves," LaHood told reporters. "While we cannot change what happened that day, we can assure the families that we will do everything within the law to hold the accused person responsible."
On the night of the fire, Johnson spoke to local television news station KABB FOX 29 at the strip mall.
"I didn't see nothing, actually. Some members actually called me and told me that the fire was going on," he told a KABB reporter. "I did not believe it at all and thought it was a joke, that they were playing around. ... It's our livelihood, that's what we built from scratch."
The day after the fire, Johnson started a GoFundMe page soliciting donations to rebuild his gym. The campaign raised $2,430 toward its $10,000 goal. The page has since been taken down.
LaHood and Hood would not disclose whether Johnson gave a reason for starting the fire. "We will not be releasing any reports until the day of trial or during the trial process to make sure due process is followed for the accused, the families, and the whole process in general," LaHood said.
Hood said it's been a "highly emotional" experience for him and the fire department to learn that the fire was not an accident.
"I talked to Scott Deem's captain this morning and he cried," he said. "I was in my boss' office and I broke down. There's not a member in this organization that has not shed a tear because of the culmination of this."
Phipps suffered severe burns to his upper extremities in the May 18 fire, Hood said. He also is missing some digits and part of his right calf as a result of his injuries.
"The fire that we responded ... ripped open a scab within this organization that is gonna take a long time to heal," Hood said. "Because every single day we go into environments to save someone, we go in thinking, 'Here's somebody in there that needs our help.' To have this fire [be] human-caused, it really changes that dynamic for us."
At times the fire chief struggled to hold back tears, describing Deem as a "loving father and husband" who left a deep impact on his colleauges in the fire department. Deem left behind his wife Jennifer, children Dakota, 13, and Tyler, 7. His third child, Aubrey, was born after he passed away.
"They miss their dad every single day," Hood said. "...We will take care of his family as we take care of our own, always.
"We're still one of the best fire departments in the world, and we will continue to go out and continue to do the great job that we do every single day."
Hanna Oberhofer contributed to this report.