SMYRNA — Standing next to his burned-out business Friday afternoon, with an acrid smoke smell still present, the owner of a topless bar had a simple message for whoever committed what officials are calling arson.
“You need to turn yourself in because they’re going to get you anyway,” said 54-year-old Willis J. Duckery outside the blackened Fairways Inn on U.S. 13 between Dover and Smyrna.
Earlier, the office of the Delaware State Fire Marshal announced that the Thursday morning fire that caused approximately $400,000 in damage was intentionally set. A search for suspects was underway, Assistant State Fire Marshal Michael G. Chionchio said.
Ready to aid the chase for justice was Mr. Duckery, the Fairways Inn owner who turned over surveillance video that he said showed a hooded suspect lighting something, crouching near the building and tossing it at approximately 4:49 a.m.
What followed was devastating to a Kent County landmark — open since 1967 — which is the only topless tavern licensed in Delaware. The blaze was reported shortly before 5 a.m. at the business at 4167 DuPont Parkway. The Citizens Hose Company of Smyrna arrived on the scene with flames shooting from the two-story building and smoke billowing out of three front windows facing the highway.
The business was closed when the fire ignited, though Mr. Duckery said patrons from the night before might have perpetrated the felonious criminal offense.
Mr. Duckery said a group of Hispanic males were asked to leave the facility at approximately 1:28 a.m. after one of them pulled on a girl’s hair in what he described as an “altercation.” Later, Mr. Duckery suspects one of the bounced customers might have returned to set the fire.
“It’s something that you never think will escalate to that nature,” Mr. Duckery said.
The business was closed when the fire was discovered at 4:54 a.m. There were no reported injuries.
A criminal investigation is underway with fire marshals seeking to apprehend those persons responsible for causing this fire, Mr. Chionchio said.
Mr. Duckery said he received word of the arson suspicions and his worst fears were confirmed. He said he felt like investigators ruled him out quickly as the perpetrator because of his cooperation and turning over of the camera equipment.
“It was always in my mind (that arson) could have been possible, but you always hope that it’s not something of that nature,” Mr. Duckery said.
Mr. Duckery said he had just gone to bed at 5 a.m. when a former dancer called and said that the fire had broken out at the Fairways.
Also at the scene Friday was Mr. Duckery’s wife Josephina, who said she was “in shock.” She had been up most of the night already cooking brisket for an upcoming Fourth of July celebration when the news of fire arrived.
The husband and wife business team both expressed concern for the approximately 50 contracted dancers, bartenders and security personnel who are suddenly looking for employment.
“I can’t stop thinking about all the employees who need to find another place for income,” Ms. Duckery said. “They rely on working here to help fulfill their responsibilities to their families, and now that’s not available. I truly worry for them.”
Ms. Duckery was less concerned for herself and her husband; she has worked for more than two decades as a paralegal at a Dover law firm, and he manages a car dealership in addition to Fairways.
Surveying the aftermath less than 12 hours after the blaze, Mr. Duckery appeared outwardly stoic as he recounted the morning’s events to local newspaper and television reporters.
Having served in the United States Air Force in Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield helps him cope, Mr. Duckery said.
“You’re never prepared for something like this, but I’ve been in the military and had to deal with some really bad things,” Mr. Duckery said. “You have to press on and not think about what’s happened in the past. I’m not going to lose much sleep about it.”
That mindset will serve him well in the coming weeks, as the business owner works to rebuild the Fairways and open up again “as soon as possible.” Mr. Duckery said the business was fully insured and the property loss could be replaced, and he was calling builders and contractors to begin the estimate process.
Anyone with information regarding this arson is asked to contact the Office of the State Fire Marshal at 739-4447. Callers may remain anonymous.
Staff writer Craig Anderson can be reached at 741-8296 or email@example.com. Follow @DSNAnderson on Twitter.