Two years ago on Thanksgiving morning, an iconic restaurant in Cave Creek burned to the ground. The Buffalo Chip was a gathering place for rodeo fans, Green Bay Packers football junkies and tourists.
There has been no arrest and the case has gone dormant. But evidence led police to a suspect.
She was a middle-aged woman from north Phoenix, described by a friend as “a smart girl” and college-educated. She was also a regular at the bar. 12 News is not publishing her name because she was never arrested and never charged with a crime. During interviews, she was adamant she had nothing to do with the fire.
According to police records, around 1:30 a.m. on the morning of the fire, the woman was kicked out for smoking. An employee told investigators the woman did not leave quietly and claimed her ouster was “racially motivated.” According to one employee, the woman allegedly declared on her way out, “This place is gonna burn.” Another employee interviewed by police later downplayed the woman’s anger.
At 2:19 a.m., the woman checked in at the entrance gate of her Anthem neighborhood. Soon after, according to investigative records, she was seen leaving the neighborhood again dressed in different clothes.
Cell phone pings tracked by investigators located the woman in the general area of Cave Creek for the next several hours.
At 3:08 a.m., surveillance video at a Circle K across the street from the Buffalo Chip showed the woman picking up a pack of matches. Over the next three hours, the Buffalo Chip emptied out and a cleaning crew locked up.
Then at 6:40 a.m., an employee arrived at the Buffalo Chip to begin preparations for Thanksgiving Day football games. He noticed smoke in the restaurant and called 911.
Fire crews respond and at one point, the woman approached employees and a firefighter on the scene to ask if she could go back inside restaurant, claiming she left keys inside the night before. Firefighters turned her away.
At 7:36 a.m., the woman was seen entering her Anthem neighborhood once again.
The following day, she rented a U-Haul moving truck and told a friend she was leaving town, according to police records. The next day she was gone. A property manager later told investigators she didn’t give them prior notice she would be leaving.
MCSO investigators interviewed the suspect in person on two different occasions. Records show she told deputies she was drunk the night of the arson and that her memories were ”fuzzy” and “jumbled”. She was also emotional because of a relationship problem, she said.
She admitted she was kicked out of the bar but denied ever vowing to set it on fire. When asked about getting matches, she said she couldn’t remember.
She said she returned to the Buffalo Chip early the next morning to retrieve keys she left behind. She also may have gone to a nearby park, she told investigators. During one interview, a detective suggested there was a gap of several hours during which the woman should could not account for her whereabouts.
“I can put some more thought on it,” she told the detective. “I can’t remember right now and put it in a very coherent way for you at this moment. But I can give it some more thought if you need me to.”
Despite the evidence gathered by deputies, County Attorney Bill Montgomery declined to prosecute the case in March.
“We lacked physical evidence, or any direct evidence really placing her at the scene of the fire when it occurred,” Montgomery said. He added there was enough evidence to establish probable cause for an indictment, but not enough “to initiative the criminal process against somebody.”
Montgomery says the suspect’s exact whereabouts before the fire could not be proven.
“The rules of evidence in a court of public opinion and a court of law are very different,” he said.
Montgomery said there was another problem. That same night another customer was overheard making a similar statement about wanting to burn down the bar. Detectives were unable to track down that person of interest.
“What that winds up doing is creating enough reasonable doubt about who may be directly responsible,” Montgomery said.
There was also the employee who downplayed how angry the suspect was that night.
“These employees were very open with investigators about what they saw… so that kind of cuts both ways there, too,” Montgomery said.
Now two years later, the Buffalo Chip is rebuilt. The owner tells 12 News he feels there was enough probable cause to make an arrest.
But Montgomery stands by his decision.
“You may draw conclusions based on hunches and based on what you might say common sense suggests. But that can’t be presented to a jury,” Montgomery said.
12 News made several attempts to contact the woman by phone, through social media and by leaving her a message at her new address where she is now living out of state. The woman has not responded to requests for an interview.