The Mustang topless bar in Santa Ana--formerly operated by an ex-convict whose murder almost exactly a year ago remains unsolved--was heavily damaged Christmas Day in a fire that authorities suspect was deliberately set.
Battalion Chief Jim Dalton of the Santa Ana Fire Department said the fire erupted at 9:34 a.m. at the bar at 605 S. Harbor Blvd. He said 25 firefighters who responded in eight units took 20 minutes to control the blaze, which caused an estimated $700,000 in damage.
The bar "was half-destroyed--the roof caved in," Dalton said.
Outside the burned structure, a sign still advertised Wednesday as amateur topless night.
Dalton said that, according to investigators, the fire started under suspicious circumstances in a back room used as an employee lounge and locker room.
"There was something there of a suspicious nature," Dalton said, "but we haven't been able to pinpoint it yet." He declined to elaborate.
Dalton said that the bar, which opened in 1983, had closed late Thursday night and that there was no evidence that anyone was there when the fire broke out.
On Jan. 1 this year, the club's former operator, James Lee Casino, 48, was killed by two intruders. They entered Casino's Buena Park home and forced him at gunpoint to give them keys to two cars and valuables in the house before they shot him once in the head.
Casino's girlfriend, Shelly Faciones, 22, was tied at the hands and feet but was not harmed otherwise. She called police after freeing herself.
Buena Park, Anaheim, Santa Ana and Los Angeles police investigators worked on the case, but no one was ever arrested in Casino's death.
At the time of his death, Casino--who had changed his name from Stockwall while in prison for counterfeiting--was deeply in debt. Internal Revenue Service agents were days away from padlocking the Mustang because of unpaid payroll taxes. In the two years before his murder, the IRS had filed two tax liens against the corporation that owned the Mustang.
Casino also owed $302,000 to a group of investors in his failed chain of hot dog stands, and a Los Angeles Superior Court judge had given him less than a month to pay that debt or serve five years in state prison.
Michael O. Walsh, president of Fortune Investments Inc., took control of the club after Casino's death and later said Casino had never owned it.
Walsh also accused the IRS of using the tax liens against the corporation as a ploy to close down the Mustang. He insisted that the IRS was owed just $10,000 in back taxes.
Walsh was unavailable for comment Friday. Santa Ana police said it is unclear who owns and operates the Mustang.
"But I know an arson report was taken, and that will be investigated," said Sgt. George Kopitch. He would not elaborate on the nature of the arson report.