NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — It was 40 years ago this week that a “torch” set fire in this town to a second restaurant — within three weeks of burning the first one — while also igniting fears of local business owners, wondering who would be next.
“I got a call, it was like 4 o’clock in the morning from the police,” recalled William Shields, then owner of the popular Twin Willows restaurant on Boston Neck Road in the town’s north end. The next words dropped him to the floor.
“Your place is on fire, you better get up there. I got up there, and I said, “Holy Christ,” Shields said as he remembered looking at the flames eating away the roof. The fire started in the early morning hours on July 30 after 400 or more patrons had left and the manager locked the doors and a room with a safe, he said.
Three weeks later, Aug. 18, 1979, the 5:15 a.m. fire alarm rang inside the Narragansett Fire Department. This time there was a reported fire, a short distance away from its 40 Caswell St. headquarters, at the nearby historic Coast Guard House on Ocean Road, right by the Victorian-era Towers arching over the road.
James Kelso, then a co-owner, said at the time of the fire, “After I got up here on Saturday and saw the place on fire, I thought “Oh, God, another Willows.”
Meanwhile, other business owners, who dubbed the unknown arsonist the “torch” and seeing thousands of dollars in damage occurring at these restaurants, began to take extensive precautions to protect their property.
“Who has a business in South County that can afford to be burned down,” said Tony Conti in an interview that same year, adding that he was sleeping at his business, then called Juan’s Stop, on Boston Neck Road.
George Blessing, was the owner of the former Bonnet Lounge, not far from the Twin Willows. He said at the time, “Sure I’m scared. I leave on the lights and turn on the jukebox.”
One bar owner, who speculated about the fires, came close — without knowing it — to describing the actual scenario of the “torch” that would unfold later.
“He robs the place and then gets his jollies by burning the joint,” said Caeser Benedetti, owner of the former Caeser’s on Ocean Road, right after the second fire.
At the Narragansett Police Department, Detective Capt. James Cook took control of the situation. In a recent interview the now-retired investigator said growing fears in the community and among business owners added to his urgency to solve the case after the Aug. 18 fire.
“We started looking into everything about the Willows fire,” he said. “Not only the fires, but there was a robbery there,” he added.
“We started talking to everyone we could think of connected with this situation and looking at all possible causes and reasons,” he said. Over the following three weeks he and his team of detectives, Glenn Browning, John Marine and the late Richard Zuercher, sifted through both the rubble and leads.
Requests by the press for updates were answered with the firm reply, “It’s under investigation,” by Cook as his team worked through follow-ups and motives.
Three weeks later, when the Coast Guard House fire occurred, good crime investigation techniques, said Cook, including evidence searches around the entire and nearby buildings, produced a strong lead. They found a wallet, dropped on the ground, under the Towers’ arch, he recalled.
Soon after, the name of the wallet’s owner, Craig A. Hooper, then 20 , gave them a likely suspect, he pointed out.
Within one week of the last fire, Cook had Hooper followed and a traffic stop found him driving without a license and driving an unregistered motor vehicle. After questioning, police brought a variety of breaking and entering charges in Narragansett and South Kingstown as well as charges related to setting the fires.
Hooper later pleaded no contest to the variety of charges and was sentenced on Aug. 26, 1981, to five years in the Adult Correctional Institution with 10 years’ probation, according to the state court records.
Hooper, whom his father recently said is now in a Virginia prison, could not be reached for comment for this story.
“He’s been in and out of jail for years, and if I were you, I’d forget him,” said George Hooper. “I’m 83 and he’s 60 years old and I really don’t want to be bothered by it anymore.”
Narragansett Police Chief and Town Manager Sean Corrigan, who was not employed by the town at the time, praised Cook and his team. “The work that they did was really outstanding and the result of old-fashioned police work,” he said.
Shields, the former owner of Twin Willows, agreed, but said he thought the Rhode Island Superior Court could have required some restitution. Half of his building was reduced to ashes and it took several months to repair with costs topping $100,000, he added.
“I just think that somebody should have stepped up to the plate and say, you got to reimburse this guy 10 percent for what he went through,” he said, referring to himself.
In an oddity about the case, the fire at the Willows was also packed with a collection of coincidences that also added to questions about that fire and the mystery who did it, Shields acknowledged.
“They had me as a suspect. That really, really bothered me. I had to go up to the fire marshal’s office and be interrogated and everything else. They wanted to give me a lie detector test,” he said.
“Nobody in their right mind would burn a place, on July 30, in the midst of summer, when you’re doing a tremendous business,” he added.
Further complicating problems at the time was that the fire alarm on the building did not signal a fire that evening, he said.
Shields said that the alarm, which had been recently installed, had not been connected even though he was given assurances that it was properly working.
In addition, Hooper’s father, George, was a night-time cleaning person at the restaurant, but police never charged his father with any crimes connected to the incident. George Hooper said recently he was unaware of his son’s actions at the time.
Shields said that the younger Hooper entered his building through an open second-story window. He then entered a room with a safe and pried it open. He took money and went out a slider in back of building and on to a porch.
However, both police and Shields said, he went back to the building to destroy any evidence of him being there. He emptied a bottle of rum on wooden stairs to second floor and set it on fire.
“The fire took a lot of starch out of me. It really did. It was just… you know, when they didn’t find Hooper and people were up there every day and people came up to help and you wonder, did that guy do it or did that other guy do it. You wonder,” said Shields, who sold the restaurant to a family member five years later.
Looking back at that fire, Judge Frank Caprio, a co-owner of the restaurant today and in 1979, said this week, “We had recently purchased the Coast Guard House and had only been open for a few months when the fire occurred. Fortunately, we quickly bounced back. Now, 40 years later, despite the efforts of a few hurricanes along the way, we are thriving more than ever.”
Narragansett Police Chief Corrigan said arson today would be tackled with the detective work seen 40 years ago, as well as with forensic advancements at the Rhode Island Crime Lab, advanced technology at the state Fire Marshal’s Office and information sharing among other police agencies.
In addition, an Incident Response System would give periodic updates to the public on the investigation of an arson, he said.
“Every generation of law enforcement builds off of the last and I’m very proud of the tradition we have at the Narragansett Police Department,” he said.