Crime

KC woman is charged with arson and murder in blaze that killed two firefighters

Federal investigators continued their methodical work at the scene of the Oct. 12 fire on Independence Avenue near Prospect Avenue that killed two firefighters.
Federal investigators continued their methodical work at the scene of the Oct. 12 fire on Independence Avenue near Prospect Avenue that killed two firefighters. jledford@kcstar.com

A nail salon owner in Kansas City’s old Northeast deliberately started a fire in her shop earlier this month that killed two Kansas City firefighters battling the blaze, investigators alleged Tuesday.

Prosecutors charged Thu Hong Nguyen, 43, of Kansas City, with first-degree arson and two counts of second-degree murder, or felony murder because the deaths happened as a result of the arson. Arrested Monday, Nguyen was being held Tuesday with bond set at $2 million.

Kansas City firefighters Larry Leggio and John Mesh died fighting the Oct. 12 blaze in a building at 2608 Independence Ave. when a wall collapsed on the structure’s east side, spewing bricks and other debris into the alley where the firefighters stood. Two other firefighters were injured.

Leggio, 43, and Mesh, 39, were both veteran firefighters. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said their families wished for everyone to respect their privacy.

Thu Hong Nguyen, a nail salon owner in Kansas City's old Northeast deliberately set a fire earlier this month that killed two Kansas City firefighters, investigators alleged Tuesday.

“They are really struggling with the news that they received today,” Baker said.

The prosecutor said her message to the families was that “we will fight for you and we’re going to fight for justice in this case.”

Baker and other officials announced the charges at a somber press conference at which they took no questions.

Gregory Grant, special agent in charge of the Kansas City office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said this fire was “very difficult” for investigators.

“Regardless of the badge on our uniforms, those who dedicate their lives to protect the public form a brotherhood that bonds all of us together,” he said. “The loss of public servants weighs heavily on the national response team.”

According to court documents, Nguyen owned the LN Salon and Spa, which was one of the businesses on the first floor of the burned building. The upper two floors held 16 apartment units.

Investigators determined the fire originated in a northeast corner storage room inside the nail salon.

Nguyen was observed on video surveillance tape from a neighboring business leaving the spa on the evening of the fire with another individual. Investigators said she was the last person to leave the salon.

Investigators said the nail salon had only one entrance, on the Independence Avenue side.

Nguyen said she left the salon about 7:15 p.m. The Fire Department responded to a report of fire at 7:24 p.m.

Investigators said as early as 7:17 p.m. electrical circuits that distributed power to the apartments above the nail salon began to be impinged. Those circuits were located near the northeast corner storage room. The impingement was caused by the fire and was not the cause of the fire, investigators said.

Investigators said Nguyen is associated with two other fires, including a July 25, 2013, fire at the Nails USA salon in Lee’s Summit where she worked at the time. Investigators classified that fire, which was isolated to Nguyen’s work station, as accidental.

On Jan. 6 of this year, there was another fire in a vacant apartment directly above the LN Salon and Spa. That fire also damaged the salon. Investigators determined it was intentionally set.

According to court documents, Nguyen told investigators Monday that she received insurance payouts from those two previous fires.

Nguyen told investigators that on Oct. 12, the day of the deadly blaze, she went to a nail supply store and purchased four bottles of acetone and four bottles of isopropyl alcohol, both flammable liquids.

Nguyen made statements to investigators about who was with her when she left the salon on the night of the fire that were not consistent with witness accounts. She also made statements about telephone calls that were inconsistent with an examination of her cellphone activity.

Before the building collapsed, firefighters rescued tenants from the half-block-long building.

As the community mourned the firefighters’ deaths, investigators began combing through the fire’s debris.

About 25 members of a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives national response team joined investigators with the Kansas City Fire Department and the Kansas City Police bomb and arson squad.

Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi thanked all the agencies for their expertise in the investigation.

“There’s no way that the resources and level of expertise could have been delivered by any one agency but certainly the expertise from the ATF was very welcomed and very needed for the investigation of this fire,” Berardi said. “That being said, there’s a long way to go and we know that and we’re going to be working every step of the way and we’re going to cooperate with the Jackson County prosecutor.”

Some investigators examined fire debris for clues to the fire’s cause and path, while others interviewed witnesses to the fire and those who fought it. The ATF team also included a specialist trained in reviewing surveillance and cellphone videos.

A key booster of the old Northeast was shocked by Tuesday’s charges.

“I am absolutely stunned; I am still speechless and without composure,” said Bobbi Baker-Hughes, chief executive officer of the Northeast Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

Her first thoughts remain with the families of the firefighters, Baker-Hughes said.

“And now that Independence Avenue has reopened, we are letting folks know that access to the businesses there in the immediate area is available again and that those businesses need the community’s support as we go through this grieving process,” she said.

The fire and loss of life saddened Jessica Ray, president of the Pendleton Heights Neighborhood Association in Northeast Kansas City. One of the late firefighters, Larry Leggio, lived in the Pendleton Heights district, she said.

“We lost a neighbor on top of the city losing a firefighter,” Ray said. “The whole thing has been heart-wrenching.”

The Star’s Ian Cummings contributed to this report.

Brian Burnes: 816-234-4120, @BPBthree

Matt Campbell: 816-234-4902, @MattCampbellKC

Glenn E. Rice: 816-234-4341, @GRicekcstar

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