UPDATED 09/16/11 12:37 p.m.
WAUKEGAN (CBS) – A well-known Waukegan business owner who once ran for mayor has been charged with starting the massive fire that destroyed a vacant Salvation Army warehouse in May.
Gregory Flesher, 48, also has admitted to setting another fire, in Canada, that killed a woman, Lake County prosecutors say.
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The fire at the Salvation Army warehouse at 133 S. Genesee St. broke out on May 4. The building burned to the ground.
A week later, Waukegan police discovered an attempted arson, in which the fire was never actually set, at 224 Washington St. just blocks away, according to a news release.
In that instance, Flesher allegedly placed fireworks inside holes in the walls, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Police soon afterward identified Flesher as a possible suspect, and found out he had fled to Canada just days after the incidents.
“Mr. Flesher was reported missing by his wife,” Waukegan police Cmdr. Gabriel Guzman said.
Waukegan police Detective Alejos Villalobos contacted police in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., just across the St. Mary’s River from the town of the same name in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
It turned out that a 48-year-old woman had been killed in an arson fire in Sault Ste. Marie, and Flesher was also suspected. The fire severely damaged a four-unit apartment building, according to the Sault Star.
“Mr. Flesher happened to be on their witness list because he was one of the prospective buyers of the property, and when they brought him in, they discovered he was missing through Waukegan,” Guzman said.
A warrant was issued for Flesher’s arrest for the Waukegan fire in early September, and Flesher gave a statement admitting his involvement, Waukegan police said.
“At first he denied it, but when I presented the evidence that we had, the work that we had done, he became defeated, admitted to everything,” Villalobos told CBS 2’s Mike Parker.
The Tribune reported Flesher told police he had asked previously about buying the Salvation Army building, but was never able to get financing and decided to burn it down because he “got sick of looking at it.”
Fireworks and gasoline were used to start the Salvation Army blaze, as well as the one in Canada, police said.
Flesher was charged with arson, attempted arson and criminal damage to property. He is being held at the Lake County Jail on $2.5 million bond.
Flesher is the owner of Waukegan area contractor Flesher Plastering, the Tribune reported. He ran as a Republican against current Mayor Robert Sabonjian, who was running as an independent, and Democrat Richard Hyde in the April 2009 mayoral elections. A plastering contractor and Waukegan resident since 1992 who was making his first run for elective office, Flesher finished a distant third, earning 385 votes out of more than 7,500 cast.
Following Sabonjian’s swearing-in, the mayor appointed Flesher to serve on the Waukegan Development Commission, which reviews proposed developments and forwards them to the City Council.
A campaign page for Flesher’s write-in campaign for Lake County Board last year remains available in cached form. The page touts Flesher as a 17-year Waukegan resident with a wife and two children, and “more than 35 years’ experience as a small business owner, construction project manager, real estate investor, realtor and restoration design specialist.”
He also served as chairman of buildings and grounds for the YMCA Camp Jorn Board of Directors, and as chairman of the playground committee for the Clark Elementary School PTO, the campaign site said.
The site also notes, “In 1974, Greg helped his father convert a Salvation Army warehouse on the southwest corner of Sheridan and Water Streets in Waukegan into a commercial office for EC Daver, a contracting company, and Flesher Plastering Company.” But this is a different facility than the one Flesher is accused of setting on fire.
The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.