Judge denies request to lower bond in deadly Sturgeon Bay fire case
DOOR COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - Eight criminal charges have been filed against a suspect in a deadly fire at a Sturgeon Bay bar and upper level apartments. The century-old building was a total loss.
Anthony Gonzalez appeared in Door County Court Monday. He’s charged with two counts of Second Degree Reckless Homicide, five counts of Second Degree Recklessly Endangering Safety, and one count of Negligent Handling of Burning Material. He could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted.
Gonzalez is currently in custody at the Door County Jail. He made his initial appearance virtually.
His attorney asked the judge to lower the $250,000 cash bond to a low cash bond and a $50,000 signature bond, saying her client is not a flight risk.
“In looking at Mr. Gonzalez’s record, there’s nothing in his record that paints Mr. Gonzalez as a flight risk. As we know, this fire occurred early Tuesday morning of last week and looking at the criminal complaint it shows that Mr. Gonzalez remained on the scene, he fully cooperated with law enforcement, he didn’t flee, in fact he was taken into custody without incident at his place of employment in Door County,” said Attorney Aileen Henry.
“I do acknowledge that Mr. Gonzalez does come before you with a criminal history, but I think it’s notable, judge, that he does not have a history of violent or assaultive crimes. He does not have a history of missing court appearances. He has been placed on community supervision in the past and he was able to successfully complete his period of community supervisions,” Henry said.
The state disagreed.
“These were committed while Mr. Gonzalez has been out on bond in three different felony matters dating back to 2019. There’s a 2020 case, there’s a 2021 case as well. In the 2021 case, he’s charged with two counts of Felony Bail Jumping,” said District Attorney Colleen Nordin.
A family member of one of the victims requested the judge not alter the bond.
Judge Todd Ehlers declined to lower bond, citing the seriousness of the charges and the potential of a lengthy prison sentence if convicted.
“I guess someone facing 150 years potentially of sentence, if there ever was the potential incentive to abscond and not make court appearances, that would be the circumstance,” Ehlers said.
Gonzalez waived time limits for scheduling a preliminary hearing.
The fire on February 22 killed two people. A third tenant was sent to a Milwaukee burn center last Tuesday. No names have been released.
“Others who lived there and called Butch’s Bar home narrowly escaped further tragedy,” police say.
A criminal complaint obtained by Action 2 News details the events leading up to the fire and arrest of Gonzalez.
Shortly after the fire started at 3:37 a.m., Sgt. Kyle Engebose of Sturgeon Bay Police says he responded to the building at 112 South 3rd Avenue and saw smoke and flames coming to from the side of the building closest to 3rd Avenue. Engebose said he could not hear any smoke alarms sounding.
Engebose approached the rear of the building as he knew it to be the primary entry/exit area for tenants who lived on the upper level. He was told that there were people inside the building who were unable to get out.
Engebose heard screams coming from the south side of the building and saw a man hanging out of a window on the upper level. Sturgeon Bay Fire rescued him by using an extension ladder. The man was taken to a Milwaukee area hospital for medical treatment for significant burns and smoke inhalation.
Engebose worked his way to the west side of the building and found the owner, Clarence Cumber, standing in the front door. Engebose told Cumber he needed to get away from the building.
Engebose says he started gathering information about how many people could have been inside the building based on the tenants who made it out. Engebose was able to account for five tenants and Cumber. Two men were not accounted for. Their vehicles were in the parking lot and unoccupied.
While on scene, Gonzalez exited the building and made contact with officers.
“I spilled lighter fluid on my bed,” Gonzalez told them. He said he was in unit No. 3 and was filling a Zippo butane lighter when it “sprayed all over.”
“All of a sudden it all ignited,” Gonzalez said. “It was enough fluid to start a quarter of the bed on fire. I ran and grabbed a fire extinguisher, thought I blasted it out, but something else was burning, and it was too hot for me to stay in the room. I started pounding on all the doors to get people out.”
A Special Agent with the Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation interviewed Gonzalez, who had lived above Butch’s Bar for about two years.
Gonzalez said that had picked up his girlfriend from work after midnight, dropped her off at her place, and then returned to his apartment at about 12:45 a.m. He described having some food and watching TV from his mattress. He said the mattress was “all cut up” to the point where springs were exposed. He had pieces of an egg-crate foam mattress topper on it.
Gonzalez said he fell asleep while watching TV and woke up and wanted a cigarette. He grabbed the closest lighter, a torch-type lighter. It was out of compressed butane fuel. While on the bed, he grabbed the can of fuel to fill it up. He said he couldn’t see very well so he did not line up the butane bottle with the lighter fluid and it sprayed. He said he got fuel on his hands and the corner of his mattress. The spilling and spraying lasted about 15-30 seconds.
Gonzalez continued to fill the lighter and put the fuel back on his table. He grabbed a cigarette and struck his lighter, but it did not ignite. He struck it a second time and his hands caught fire and the corner of the mattress caught fire. As he got up, the inside of the mattress caught fire.
Gonzalez said he used a pillow to try to put out the fire, but it didn’t work. He attempted to grab a fire extinguisher that from the wall. He thought he had the fire out, but then noticed smoke coming from the ceiling.
He pounded on another tenant’s door and Gonzalez told him his bed was on fire. Gonzalez and the tenant made more attempts to put out the fire, but it was too hot in the room. Gonzalez said he ran downstairs and told the owner that there was a fire upstairs. The owner told him to call 911. Gonzalez said he thought someone had already done that. Gonzalez left the building.
Gonzalez was asked if tenants were allowed to smoke in their rooms, Gonzalez said that everybody smoked up there and there had been fires before.
“You know I was just not coherent. I wasn’t using my head. I should have got up and did it that way, but I didn’t. I just was lazy and I did it right on the corner of my bed like an idiot,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez denied being under the influence of alcohol or controlled substances.
A fundraiser has been established for people who were displaced by the fire. The fund is the Nicolet Bank - United Way of Door County - Butch’s Bar Fire Victims Relief Fund.
correction: We removed a line from this story attributed to an official that Gonzalez was under the influence at the time. Gonzalez denied being under the influence.
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