FBI: “Vehicle Of Interest” In Gables Travel Agency Arson
MIAMI (CBSMiami) – The FBI has released pictures of what they are calling a ‘vehicle of interest’ in their investigation of a fire at a Coral Gables travel agency which arranges trips to Cuba.
A spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), which is leading the investigation along with the F.B.I., tells CBS4’s Peter D’Oench that the car, which could be either a black Volvo or Nissan, was seen in the moments just after the fire.
There are time stamps of 3:34 a.m., 4:35 a.m. and 4:36 a.m., seeming to indicate that the car was still in the area just east of the travel agency as firefighters were trying to put out the blaze.
The fire was set on April 27th around 3:30 a.m. at Airline Brokers Co. at 815 Ponce De Leon Boulevard.
The owner of the travel agency, Vivian Mannerud, called it a “horrible crime” and vows she will continue arranging charter flights to Cuba.
A report by the Coral Gables Fire Department says investigators found a disposable lighter, the remains of a green bottle, and a piece of asphalt.
Those items indicate the “potential use of a projectile to breach the building window, and the use of a liquid accelerant incendiary device in this fire,” according to the report.
Security cameras outside the building captured a dark colored vehicle circle the building several times after the fire had been set. It is this vehicle that the FBI hopes someone will recognize and call them.
Mannerud told D’Oench that she is pleased to know that clues are beginning to surface.
“It’s very encouraging to know that it is an active investigation and that it is being pursued by the federal agencies and law enforcement and I’m sure there is more that we don’t know about. So, I think that this is a great first step in getting this out into the community,” she said.
“This is a horrible crime and it is why it’s called arson. Anybody could have gotten hurt, somebody inside the building or our own law enforcement, firefighters who risk their lives every day to put out these types of fire,” said Mannerud.
Mannerud said ever since the attack, it has changed her outlook on how she sees the people around her.
“I’ve been through a lot of different things in my life. This feels like such a violation because you begin to wonder even at the supermarket, is it the guy next to me who did it. So you feel very violated,” said Mannerud.
She worries that the fire may have set by someone who was angry with her agency because it arranged trips to Cuba.
“I will never change how I do business. I am an American and I will not change.”
Mannerud said she didn’t recognized the vehicle in the photo but she hopes someone does
“Anybody who has any information about this and is keeping quiet you will become an accomplice. To the person or persons who did do this, you will be caught, you will be prosecuted and the law enforcement will be a lot easier (if) you turn yourself in,” said Mannerud.
The blaze severely damaged the offices of the company, which arranged the flights and travel for hundreds of Cuban-Americans and others to the island for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit in March. The agency has also recently expanded its operations to include flights from Fort Lauderdale.
“I am not going to make any accusations but I think the common denominator of this was the amount of people who were quite angry at the papal visits and the amount of prominent Cuban Americans and Americans who went to the Papal mass,” Mannerud said.
Mannerud’s company has arranged charter flights to Cuba since the 1980s.
Mannerud said she is not sure if she’ll return to the Coral Gables location. Her agency continues to book trips to and from Cuban from another location which she refused to disclose.
The ATF spokesman said so far no witnesses have come forward and authorities could use help in solving this case.
Anyone with information is asked to call Crime Stoppers at (305) 471-TIPS (8477).