Report: Front Street fire's cause 'undetermined'

GEORGETOWN, S.C. (WCIV) -- The results of a nearly two-month investigation into the fire that destroyed homes and businesses in Georgetown have found that the cause of the fire could not be determined.

"The fire was investigated by the S.C. Law Enforcement Division. The SLED investigation found no signs or evidence of an intentionally committed act. All accidental causes for the fire could not be eliminated therefore the exact cause of the fire is undetermined," the report from the State Law Enforcement Division reads.

However, the SLED investigation revealed a strange man caught on camera, an argument between other men, and a black trash bag that appeared to be the start of the fire, according to one witness.

Georgetown Councilman Paige Sawyer has said the fire started on the back deck of Limpin' Janes, one of the restaurants destroyed in the fire. A narrative released by SLED on Thursday reiterates Paige's belief.

In the report, Sawyer says he saw a black trash bag on fire on the restaurant's back deck and he called 911 because the fire was quickly spreading to other buildings. Brian Shepler, who owns Limpin' Jane's, told investigators the restaurant had been closed the day of the fire, but he had been in the business cleaning wood with Linseed oil.

Shepler said he threw the trash in the green trash can on the back deck, but told investigators he did not use black trash bags. Shepler was joined with two other men in the restaurant tasked with refinishing the tables.{}

While there is a discrepancy about when the group left the restaurant, they all agree it was early in the afternoon the day before the fire.

Investigators also noted a discrepancy in the amount on linseed oil used.

"Through the course of the investigation it has been proven through facts and research that Bryan Shepler did not follow proper safety protocol when dealing with Linseed Oil. Shepler was inconsistent on the amount of Linseed Oil that was placed on the rags. He initially stated that it was the size of his finger tip on the rag and then stated that it was about the size of a baseball," the report reads.

It continues, saying Shepler did not follow proper safety protocol when disposing of the rags either.

"Although a definitive cause of the fire cannot be determined at this time, the eyewitness accounts and video evidence as to the origin of the fire are consistent with statements gathered during the investigation as to the location of the improperly disposed of Linseed Oil application materials," the report reads.

However, investigators say that there is no evidence to show criminal wrongdoing by Shepler.

And then there was the man on the camera.

Video cameras around Front Street recorded a man walking east to west along Front Street. The video shows he was carry a backpack and looked over his shoulder before turning around.

Then the man on the video runs the opposite direction. Time stamps on the video show the incident happened between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., the report states.

"By using heavy equipment and man power, we were able to locate several items of interest and secure them for evidence after photographing them. The items of interest were pieces of melted plastic and pieces of steel consistent with that from a green city garbage can," the report states. "All items removed from the scene were laid out on Front Street and looked at before being discarded."

By 5:15 a.m., when Kerri Vernette Dean awoke to a crackling sound near her sailboat in the harbor, Limpin' Jane's was engulfed and the back side of Buzz's Roost was on fire. She told investigators she did not hear anything before the fire that seemed suspicious.

But there was also the man on the phone.

Another woman said she was on her back deck overlooking Buzz's Roost and heard a man talking on his phone about a break-in and "that he was about to burn something." Another white man walked up to the man on the phone, the report reads, but a black man told them both to leave the area.

The only black man employed at Limpin' Jane's told officials he never had a conversation that night about leaving the back deck.

In a subsequent interview with the woman, she said she thought she may not have heard the word "burning" because she lost her home in the fire.

Ultimately, the combination of events and actions led officials to the conclusion that they could not find the ultimate cause of the fire.