GIBSON CITY, Ill. (WCIA) – Owners of a Gibson City bar that was destroyed by fire on July 4 have been “shocked” to learn that a criminal investigation is underway into the incident that caused damage to three other nearby 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 usual, records associated with an ongoing criminal investigation have been removed from the Chronicle’s request, leaving questions about why it was opened and whether officers have a theory implicating suspects or whether they simply rule out all possible causes as the investigation continues. .
Meanwhile, Sam Steenbergen, co-owner of the bar with his wife Kelly, was taken aback by the news.
“Some people called and said, ‘Hey, what’s up with that?’ And you know, we don’t know,” he said. “A little blindsided by that.”
Jay’s Place is named after Steenbergen’s brother-in-law, Jay, who died suddenly at age 36. Less than a year later, in 2019, Steenbergen and his wife began building a bar inside the Sangamon Avenue building in the heart of downtown Gibson City.
“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.
This tribute was burnt down three years later.
There were storms moving through the city on the day it happened, which Gibson Fire Chief Bruce Kallal listed in his report as a contributing factor in igniting the fire.
“I was in Fisher at my daughter’s and got a text from Ameren saying there was a power outage at our house,” Steenbergen said.
“About 20 minutes later I got another text from Ameren saying the power had been restored. So I was like, ‘Okay, no problem.’ And then 15-20 minutes later I get a call from my [other] daughter, saying all the fire engines were heading from Sibley here because of the 4th of July.
Two months and a news article later, Steenbergen said he first heard about 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 up.’ “They burned it for money,” Steenbergen said of what he saw on social media over the past day.
“It’s my tribute to him,” Steenbergen said through tears. “That’s why my wife and I did this. Can you put a price tag on that? No.”
The couple do not own the building, but the bar and restaurant. According to standard practice, the Steenbergen’s insurance company conducts its own investigation. Nationwide Insurance sent him a letter this week noting that the surrounding damaged businesses do not appear to have any intention of suing, and the company does not expect any liability issues for the Steenbergens.
“If other properties have been damaged or they are claiming something from us that has been negligent, like we have something that we know needs to be maintained properly and we haven’t maintained it, they could sue us to claim, you know, for damages,” Steenbergen explained.
“But none of that happened. And she,” he said, referring to his insurance agent, “called me to let me know she was closing this game.
Steenbergen has expressed his intention to bring Jay’s Place back to life if the building’s owner decides to rebuild it.
“They’re just waiting for the insurance to sort it out,” he added.
Reporters asked the fire marshal’s office whether a criminal investigation was unusual, common practice, or somewhere in between. The agency could not answer the question as the investigation remains open, according to spokesperson JC Fultz.
Fultz explained that fire marshal arson investigators, like the one at Jay’s Place on July 4, are sworn police officers. They help determine the cause of fires when requested by a fire department.
Steenbergen said he and his wife “lost pretty much everything.”
“We had a lot of things that belonged to Jay that can never be replaced, you know. But you know, life goes on. You move forward.