Crime & Justice

Cops: Meat market worker torched Cathedral City strip mall for insurance

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Police say butcher shop worker Jesus Hernandez, 48, has admitted to torching Cathedral City strip mall Date Palm Plaza earlier this month. No one was hurt in the fire and subsequent explosion, but eight businesses were damaged or destroyed.

Cathedral City police say Hernandez confessed to starting the fire at Carniceria La Michoacana meat market on Dec. 6. Hernandez claims he did it because the business was struggling and he hoped the owner, a relative, could collect the fire insurance. Hernandez told police he did it without the knowledge of the owner. The market had been around for 10 years, and five years under the current ownership, according to the Desert Sun.

“All the information we have for now indicates it was done by one individual,” Cathedral City fire Chief Bill Soqui said Tuesday, the Desert Sun reports.

Hernandez faces arson and insurance fraud charges. Hernandez was arrested Tuesday and is being held in lieu of $1.25 million bail at the county jail in Banning, according to jail records. He is expected to be arraigned Thursday at the Larson Justice Center in Indio.

The fire started at La Michoacana before tearing through the attic the market shared with adjacent businesses. A police officer reported the fire in the strip mall shortly after midnight Dec. 6, Cathedral City Fire Department Battalion Chief John Muhr said.

It caused about $750,000 in damage and left about 120 people out of work. The fire began around the center of the strip mall before spreading in other directions, shooting up flames, the Desert Sun reports. An ensuing explosion was believed to be a flash fire caused by existing flames getting a burst of fresh air, fire officials said.

Neighboring businesses are collecting cash, food and other items for burned-out merchants, workers and their families. Cathedral City has also promised to streamline the permits for rebuilding. The city also plans to help those businesses move to temporary locations.

The businesses damaged or destroyed were the Taqueria Tortilla Factory, Carrusel Bakery, Ming's Chinese Cuisine, Taqueria San Miguel, La Michoacana Market, a Metro PCS store, Acapulco Easy Travel and Services and a Domino's Pizza, according to the Desert Sun.

Toys will be distributed Thursday to families whose businesses were destroyed in the fire and explosion, city spokesman Allen Howe said Wednesday. The toys will be distributed from noon to 3 p.m. at Cello's Bistro, and someone dressed as Santa Claus will attend, Howe said.

"This should make the holidays brighter for the affected families who have temporarily lost their livelihood," said Cello's owner Bonnie Barkley, who organized donations for the families of the 120 employees out of work because of the blaze.

Howe said about $2,000 in cash donations has been collected for business owners and employees affected by the fire, and will be distributed later in January and February as expenses arise. Cash donations can be dropped off at Cello's or U.S. Bank, 35950 Date Palm Drive. Checks can be made out to "Date Palm Fire Victims."

"We believe in supporting our neighbor, as is demonstrated by the community coming together to get these businesses back on their feet during these tough economic times. It is with heartfelt appreciation we say thank you to everyone who donated gifts, money and gift cards to make this holiday season a little brighter for these families," said Mayor Kathy DeRosa.