GIBSON CITY, Ill. (WCIA) — The owners of a Gibson City bar that was destroyed by a Fourth of July fire were “shocked” to hear there’s an ongoing criminal investigation into the incident that resulted in damage to three other neighboring businesses.
The Illinois State Fire Marshal’s office in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Ford County Chronicle revealed an arson investigator was on the scene hours after the fire started at Jay’s Place.
The cause of the fire remains undetermined. As is standard, the records associated with a pending criminal investigation were redacted from the Chronicle’s request, leaving questions about why it was opened, and if officers have a theory involving suspects or if they’re simply ruling out all possible causes as the investigation continues.
Meanwhile, Sam Steenbergen who co-owns the bar with his wife Kelly was caught off-guard by the news.
“We had some people call up and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on with this?’ And you know, we don’t know,” he said. “Kind of blindsided by that.”
Jay’s Place was named for Steenbergen’s brother-in-law, Jay, who died suddenly at 36 years old. Less than a year later in 2019, Steenbergen and his wife started building a bar inside the Sangamon Avenue building in the heart of Gibson City’s downtown.
“I put my heart and soul into this place for six months, building this place as a tribute to my brother-in-law,” he shared.
That tribute was burnt down by fire three years later.
There were storms rolling through the city the day it happened, which Gibson Fire Chief Bruce Kallal listed in his report as a contributing factor to the fire’s ignition.
“I was in Fisher at my daughter’s house, and I got a text from Ameren saying there was a power outage at our location,” Steenbergen said.
“About 20 minutes later, I got another text from Ameren saying power was restored. So I was like, ‘Okay, no problem.’ And then 15-20 minutes later, I get a call from my [other] daughter, saying that all the fire trucks were heading from Sibley up here because of Fourth of July.”
Two months and a news article later is when Steenbergen said he first heard of the State Fire Marshal’s criminal investigation.
“We were quite shocked,” he said, adding he was less surprised by the online chatter that followed the news.
“You know, ‘They set it.’ ‘They burnt it down for money,'” Steenbergen said of what he’s seen on social media in the last day.
“This is my tribute to him,” Steenbergen said through tears. “This is why my wife and I did this. Can you put a price tag on that? No.”
The couple doesn’t own the building, they own the bar and restaurant. Per standard practice, the Steenbergens’ insurance company is conducting its own investigation. Nationwide Insurance sent him a letter this week noting the surrounding damaged businesses don’t seem to have any intention of suing, and the company doesn’t expect any liability issues for the Steenbergens.
“If other properties were damaged or they make a claim against us for something that was neglectful, like if we had something we knew that needed properly maintained and we didn’t maintain it, they could come after us to claim, you know, for damages,” Steenbergen explained.
“But none of that’s happened. And she,” he said referring to his insurance agent, “called me to let me know she was closing that part of it out.”
Steenbergen expressed every intention of bringing Jay’s Place back to life if the owner of the building decides to rebuild.
“They’re just waiting for insurance to work everything out,” he added.
Reporters asked the Fire Marshal’s office if a criminal investigation is unusual, standard practice or somewhere in between. The agency could not answer the question because the investigation remains open, according to spokesperson J.C. Fultz.
Fultz explained that Fire Marshal arson investigators, like the one at Jay’s Place on July 4th, are sworn police officers. They help determine the cause of fires when that’s requested by a fire department.
Steenbergen said he and his wife “pretty much lost everything.”
“We had a lot of stuff that was Jay’s that can never be replaced, you know. But you know, life goes on. You move forward.”