Suspicious vehicle seen before fire at Middletown Paperboard

Just minutes before fire was noticed Friday at the former Middletown Paperboard facility at 300 South Verity Parkway, neighbors noticed a sport utility vehicle parked near the building, they told this media outlet.

The long-abandoned building was a gathering spot for teens, and sometimes was entered by others, said Sandra Gonzalez. But when her sister-in-law, Sandra Gutierrez, mentioned the vehicle outside, it was unusual enough that she looked outside.

“She was like, ‘I see a car outside,’” Gonzalez said. “She checked through the kitchen and said, ‘I cannot see what kind of car it is.’”

“When I came and checked, the fire was already going,” Gonzalez said.

Middletown fire Capt. Jon Harvey said Sunday he was not aware of further progress in the investigation, but said firefighters were aware “there was some activity in that building earlier that day.”

One reason the vehicle stood out is because Park Street, along the back of the former factory, is a quiet street that almost dead-ends at the fire site. There is a small side street that meets Park there, however.

“It’s weird to see other cars coming through or parked right here in front of our house,” Gonzalez said.

When Gutierrez had returned home from work about 15 minutes earlier, “It was not even on fire — it was normal,” she said.

The fire was reported around 11:30 p.m. Friday, with dispatchers told heavy smoke and flames were visible. Firefighters were at the scene at least 12 hours at a vacant warehouse area of the former business, with crews remaining to douse smoldering areas.

Middletown Fire Chief Paul Lolli on Saturday said when fire crews arrived, “Heavy smoke and fire was found on the South End of the complex. They immediately called for extra alarms.”

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Franklin and Monroe sent ladder vehicles that shot water from above the building.

Lolli said firefighters believed they knew where the fire started but they needed to clear out some material before they will know for sure.

Firefighters were not able to immediately access the area because the building was so structurally unsound, and parts of the roof and building were collapsing, he said.

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Use of heavy equipment would be necessary to help the fire investigation. Capt. Jon Harvey told the Journal-News that the building, located on Verity Parkway near Park Street, has been empty for decades. It also had no power.

Another neighbor, who was walking her barking dog and did not wish to give her name, said she has recently run kids off from outside the building, and has seen people inside the building before.

“If I had to bet, I would say it was arson,” she said.

Reporter Lauren Pack contributed.

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