Bakersfield arson investigators suspect the owner of a furniture store purposely burned the building to collect a million-dollar insurance payment.
Investigators are seeking Peter Phan's cell phone records as part of their criminal investigation.
The fire was intense and visible for miles.
After flames ravaged the Home Décor furniture store and warehouse on Union Avenue June 26th, owner Peter Phan expressed disbelief. "I worry a lot because I don't know how I am going to start again, you know, for my business. But, hopefully the insurance is going to do something for me," Phan told us in June.
But, a newly-filed search warrant says this was no accident. Arson investigators suspect Phan intended for the building to burn.
The fire started in three different areas, where furniture, cardboard and cushions had been stacked, they say.
"I closed up like usual, shut off the breakers, set the alarm, and that was it." Sales Manager Daniel Bracamonte says he locked up the night before the fire.
"There was nothing that stuck out in my mind about the night before at all. There are a lot transients that live around there, under the bridge there, that was my initial thought. I thought that maybe they had lit a fire," said Bracamonte on Thursday.
Arson investigators didn't detect any gasoline or ignitable liquids inside the building, but the doors were locked and they couldn't find any potential accidental causes.
And, arson investigators say Phan bounced his $6,900 rent check in June, and the building's owner demanded payment a week before the store burned.
"Obviously something is suspicious or something is going on. You are here now, so something is going on. So I hope they get to the bottom of it," said Bracamonte.
Bracamonte now works at Phan's other furniture store at Chester and 10th Street, where closeout tags dot the merchandise.
"He let go about all of our employees, except two of us who are now running the store on Chester here," said Bracamonte. "And, uh that's it. There's only two of us left."
An anonymous tipster told firefighters Phan complained he was going deep into debt and he didn't know how he would pay employees if sales didn't get better. The tipster also said Phan was paying employees under the table and that one worker had filed for unemployment and was denied because Phan hadn't paid wage taxes.
We tried calling Phan on Thursday, but one number we had for him was disconnected. The other said the mailbox was full.
We asked Bracamonte about the possibility of arson. "It would surprise me, it would really surprise me. I spoke with Peter, and he tells me to be completely, to give whatever I know," he said.