Nightclub's Surveillance System Captures Arsonists

RUFFIN - Surveillance video caught two people setting fire to a popular Hispanic nightclub in Rockingham County early Friday morning. Fire officials say a similar blaze destroyed another Hispanic nightclub in Burlington in 2004.

Investigators have begun looking into possible links between Friday's fire at Lera's Baile Mexicano at 9900 U.S. 29 Business and one at The Big Party nightclub in Burlington in April 2004.

The fire at Lera's gutted the building, causing $200,000 in damages the day before the club's busiest night: New Year's Eve.

Late Friday morning, the club - a corrugated metal building about 4 miles northeast of Reidsville - appeared undamaged. The exterior walls, roof and even the yellow paint were intact. But inside the building, everything not burned had been damaged by water or smoke. And the metal supporting the building was severely damaged by the fire's heat.

Authorities believe the arson was intended to disrupt business at Lera's and was not likely a hate crime.

"I don't think racial motivation has anything to do with it," Rockingham County fire marshal Robert Cardwell said.

He said the fire was set "on purpose to close this business."

"There's no question about that," Cardwell said. Nothing appeared to be missing from the building, and cash was found in the office, he said.

Digital surveillance video from a camera mounted on the exterior wall showed that the arsonists stayed outside the building.

Caldwell said the video shows them for seven minutes, cutting a hole in the structure's metal siding, and flames later showing through the hole.

Burlington's deputy fire chief, Mike Willets, said no arrests have been made in the Burlington arson.

Lera Kinton, the owner of Lera's Baile Mexicano, said up to 600 people generally celebrate New Year's Eve at her club. Kinton added that if she can find a place to hold this year's celebration, "We'll be back in business."

Kinton opened Lera's 13 years ago, after working for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and moved the club to its Ruffin location seven years ago.

On Dec. 15, a part of the Mar Gre motel at 231 S. Van Buren Road in Eden burned after training fires, extinguished by Eden firefighters, suspiciously re-ignited.

While firefighters were putting out the re-ignited fire, someone shot at a fire engine, leaving a bullet hole in its windshield. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, Eden Fire Chief Douglas Cline said.

Arson is also suspected in fires that destroyed two unoccupied mobile homes Thursday morning at 313 E. Meadow Road in Eden.

Although authorities are looking for links to a 2004 blaze, they say there is no connection with recent fires in Eden.