New details in Gallery arson arrest

July 29, 2009 1:25:27 PM PDT
A former employee has been arrested in the massive fire that destroyed the Gallery Furniture warehouse back in May. [READ IT: Probable cause document]
[PHOTOS: See images from the blaze]

Arson investigators say they've solved one of the biggest fires in recent memory, the four-alarm blaze at Gallery Furniture's massive north Houston warehouse back in May.

Robert Carroll Gillham, who at one point worked at Gallery Furniture, has been charged with first degree arson.

We first reported the arrest right here on Eyewitness News. Now we have new information on how authorities were able to find him.

While it's unclear what motive Gillham might have had to set fire to Gallery Furniture, we do know his time with the company apparently ended abruptly.

"When we terminate people, it's obviously for good cause," said Gallery Furniture owner Jim McIngvale.

However, aside from his termination, the problems at the store apparently go deeper than that. Eyewitness News has learned that just weeks before the fire, Gillham was accused of breaking into the home of another employee.

According to this arrest warrant out of Montgomery County, Gillham kicked in the door at the home of Eva Barney and demanded cash. Barney said in the report that she, "locked herself and her children inside the residence because she was scared of Robert."

Barney claims Gillham had loaned her money three years ago, which she paid off within one year. She claims in the report, "he would loan money to people at work and then go back for more money after they had paid the money back."

The report also said that Barney, "said he would only do this to the Hispanic employees, especially the women."

Barney said she's barely spoken to anyone other than family about the case, and found it difficult to even read her statement to the media.

"Like all of my Gallery Furniture colleagues, I am relieved to know that the suspect has been taken into custody and want to commend the investigators for their work," she said.

Near Gillham's home Tuesday, many of his neighbors were shocked to hear he was named the suspect in the fire. However, one neighbor says Gillham did not always speak nice of his former employer.

"He was complaining one time that he worked with Mattress Mack a long time and that Mattress Mack was a mean person," said Robert Curry.

Eyewitness News has learned that a permanent injunction filed in 2007 was issued against Gillham, "prohibiting him from entering the store, from harassing or threatening the store, its employees and customers, and from even calling, emailing or writing."

While McIngvale would not talk specifically about Gillham's past work history, he says given the time of the fire, just one day before a holiday, he suspected it was a former employee.

"It was somebody who knew something about the furniture business. I knew that," said McIngvale.

More from Tuesday's press conference

Alison Stein, chief investigator with the Houston arson bureau, said, "As a result of the diligent work of the Houston arson investigators as well as the special agents from the ATF, we were able to get an arrest today."

Stein explained, "The charges were enhanced because there was an injury that an arson investigator sustained while investigating the fire, which enhanced the charges from second degree to first degree."

Although Gallery owner Jim McIngvale acknowledged familiarity with Gillham by name, he refused to discuss specifics about the man or his employment.

He said, "All of us at Gallery Furniture are breathing easier now that an arrest has been made and we look forward to the legal system going through its due course and bringing this person to justice."

The four-alarm fire broke out back on May 21 and after an investigation, was ruled arson. Officials say they know where the fire was started in the warehouse, but they have not released information to the public on the specific location, or what was used to set the fire.

"These large fires are very difficult to solve because, quite frankly, they burn up a lot of the evidence," said Houston Fire Department Chief Phil Boriskie. "This was not just a good job. This was a great job solving this fire."

Elder said, "Through due diligence and what I like to call good old fashioned police work, we were able to come up with a suspect, after which we were able to perfect charges."

There were more than 100 people inside the warehouse and showroom when the fire broke out. Everyone got out safely. The four-alarm blaze destroyed the warehouse, which was100,000 square feet in size. Houston firefighters were able to save the furniture store's showroom from being a complete loss as well.

McIngvale said, "The Houston Fire Department did a miraculous job -- not a good job, but a miraculous job in saving the Gallery Furniture showroom."

"This large fire really touched the hearts of a lot of people in Houston because it involved Jim McIngvale, who's kind of an icon in this city," Chief Boriskie said.

"On behalf of myself and my wife, Linda, and all of our wonderful hard working employees, we're here to thank the incredible Houston Fire Department and the arson division for their timeless hours put in to investigate this crime and making the arrest some 61 days later," McIngvale said.

A portion of the showroom reopened for business on July 4. The remaining portion is expected to be reopened in time for Labor Day weekend. The warehouse will be back in full operation around Thanksgiving.

Gillham is currently in custody on unrelated charges. He is being questioned by authorities.

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