By Cory Smith and Elisabeth Waldon
Daily News staff writers
MONTCALM TOWNSHIP — The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) is now investigating the cause of a fire that destroyed Nelson’s Speed Shop.
About 75 firefighters from 11 fire departments responded to Nelson’s Speed Shop just north of Greenville at 1:30 a.m. Friday. They cleared the scene 10 to 12 hours later.
Montcalm Township Fire Chief Clif Dickinson said he doesn’t know the cause of the fire at this time. He noted that fuel and oil was stored in the back of the business where the fire began.
Dickinson said although the cause of the fire is not believed to be suspicious at this time, the ATF was called in to start an investigation Monday morning. The agents will be at the scene all week.
The ATF is a U.S. Department of Justice agency that investigates criminals, criminal organizations, firearms, explosives, arson and bombings, terrorism and alcohol and tobacco products.
“Because of the incident 11 years ago, they’ve decided to bring the ATF in so they can get it done rather quickly,” Dickinson said.
He was referring to a Sept. 17, 2001, fire that was set around 1:40 a.m., destroying the previous Nelson’s Speed Shop at the same location.
Richard Crew and Stewart David Barron were convicted by a federal grand jury in Grand Rapids on one count of arson and one count of conspiracy to commit arson in that fire. Crew was sentenced to 84 months (seven years) in prison, while Barron was sentenced to 63 months (just over five years) in prison. Both men were also ordered to pay about $4 million in restitution.
Thomas Klein, owner of Tom’s Cycle in St. Johns, was sentenced to five months in prison, two years of supervised release and five months of home confinement for misprision (knowledge/failure to report) of a federal arson. He was ordered to pay $500,000 in restitution.
The Nelsons want to thank the many people and organizations who came to their aid the night of the fire, including all 11 fire departments, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Ed Koehn Ford Lincoln, GTW Welding Supplies, McDonald’s, Jorgi’s Market, Richards Septic, Wolbers Pools, Craig Crebessa of Nature’s Needs, Teresa Hammond and many others.
“We’ve had a very nice outpouring of support to us and our employees from the community,” Gale Nelson said. “The response from people has been overwhelming. We just can’t thank everyone enough. I’m sure we’re missing countless others, but we just want to let everyone know we are very appreciative of everything everyone has done.”
Jack Nelson can’t believe his business has suffered a second destructive fire. He estimates his losses to be “in the millions.”
“I didn’t think we’d ever be going through this again,” he said. “It’s just devastating.”
Jack Nelson said 32 ATF agents were at his business Monday, some from Washington D.C., along with Michigan State Police officers.
“This is above and beyond,” said Jack Nelson of the investigation. “They are locking the place down hard. They are putting quite an effort into it. Nobody knows (what happened) and the loss is so huge, they want to get to the bottom of this, whether it was an electrical issue or something similar to what happened last time. They are going through it with a fine-toothed comb.”
Jack Nelson said he doesn’t know if he will rebuild his business — a third time.
“You’re up one day and down the next,” he said. “You’re weighing out all the ideas and possibilities. At this point we haven’t made a decision. There’s way too many things to take into account right now.”
The annual Sno-Motion event, which attracts thousands of visitors to Nelson’s Speed Shop each August, is tentatively on hold.
“We hope to make a decision within a week or two on if we can go forward with that,” Jack Nelson said. “The inventory that we would sell there is gone, so we would have to bring in a lot of things in a very short order and we don’t know if we can do that. It’s going to be a tough week trying to figure everything out.”