Rio Rancho fire crews continue to work on the burned country clubhouse the day after the fire started in October 2019. Gary Herron photo.

Fire investigator Mark J. Torres, special agent in charge for the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance/Criminal Division in Albuquerque, said the Oct. 4 fire that destroyed the clubhouse at what had last been Club Rio Rancho most likely started from the outside, on the roof.

And it was a case of arson, he said, although there are two types of arson: accidental or on purpose. This one, which destroyed an iconic building in the city, seemed to be intentional.

An accelerant-detection dog, named Whizzy, detected an accelerant on the roof. That accelerant was determined to be gasoline, and now, nearly 10 months later, a suspect has been found.

But, Torres said, they’ve been unable to obtain an arrest warrant for their suspect, a Bernalillo man in his 40s.

“He’s still a person of interest; we are treating him as a suspect,” Torres said Wednesday. “Everything we are writing is based on information in the search warrants.”

(Although this suspect’s name was included on the search warrant, because he has not been charged, the Observer is not identifying him, pending an arrest.)

Torres said the investigation, thanks to the pandemic, has been slower than usual: “Most of (the state arson team) are working from their home and the evidentiary process is a lot slower. … And there’s been more fires.”

“More fires” included the suspicious fire that claimed historic Sugar Bowl Lanes in Belen last month.

The suspect, according to the affidavit for the search warrant obtained in the 13th Judicial District Court in Bernalillo, acknowledged that the fire was started on the second-floor roof of the clubhouse.

An anonymous tip said the suspect “was telling people he caused this fire,” the affidavit reads.

Additionally, an anonymous source told Rio Rancho Police Detective Robyn Carter exactly where the fire had been started, with the pouring of gasoline, without any previously released information on that detail, according to the affidavit.

The suspect, who allegedly entered the clubhouse and took items, was interviewed, but Torres said the man told a lot of lies. Officials also learned their suspect was a previous employee of Club Rio Rancho.

The search warrant, later secured, allowed law enforcement to seize any cellphones used by the suspect.

But, Torres said Wednesday, the suspect has been using multiple cell phones, sometimes obtaining burner phones at Walmart and when the minutes are used up, purchasing another.

“We’ve written a series of five different search warrants; he was giving us a lot of misinformation,” Torres said. “(But) we found the phone he was using (on Oct. 4, 2019); our (next) warrant is asking for GPS information, information stored on the cloud and other telephone services.

“We’re trying to get beyond the reasonable doubt,” Torres said. “There was definitely an accelerant, (but the suspect told us) he was working in the backyard; they should or would find an accelerant on his clothes. It was a typical excuse — lawnmowers take gas, chainsaws take gas. They took samples from inside of his vehicle, took his clothes, samples of his bedroom carpet — trying to eliminate the defenses.

“It’s been frustrating,” Torres said.

“I’m not optimistic, awaiting results on what we have,” he said, “Finally I think we’ve found it (the sought-after phone).”