SAN DIEGO — A man suspected of arson was arrested on Friday after the outside awnings of a Hillcrest LGBTQ+ bar caught fire overnight.
Around 12:30 a.m., San Diego Fire-Rescue crews were alerted to the fire at Gossip Grill, located at 1220 University Ave. The nightclub is the sole bar in the county that puts queer and transgender women at the center of its business.
According to SDFD, firefighters were able to knock down the flames in about nine minutes, confining the damage to the exterior structures. The interior of the restaurant and surrounding businesses were unimpacted by the blaze.
The damage of the fire caused $10,000 in damage, Lt. Adam Sharki with the San Diego Police Department said in an email to FOX 5 Friday night.
No injuries were reported to staff, patrons or fire crews as a result of the incident, SDFD said.
“We were extremely lucky. San Diego Fire was here in a heartbeat,” owner and manager of Gossip, Moe Girton, told FOX 5. “The awnings are fire-resistant, they didn’t burn all that fast.”
Girton, who was notified of the fire by a neighboring bar, said that fire crews initially believed the fire to have been caused by an electrical issue.
However, she was suspicious about how the fire started, given that it had impacted the edges of both of the bar’s front patio awnings that are not connected to each other by any wiring and the power to both had been cut before flames broke out.
After a review of the nightclub’s security camera footage, Girton said they were able to determine that it had been arson.
“I was devastated,” Girton said of her reaction after the fire broke out. “We are one of the only queer women’s bars left in the country. We’re one of maybe 27 right now and the only one in San Diego.”
“I hate to feel like someone is out to burn down our queer-safe bar,” she continued.
Around 1:45 p.m., a SDPD Metro Arson Strike Team investigator was on the scene collecting security video when the suspect, identified as 38-year-old Ryan Habrel, was spotted nearby and taken into custody.
He was booked into jail on suspicion of arson to a commercial structure and the use of an accelerant, Sharki said. Authorities say it is not believed to be a hate crime at this time.
The fire remains under investigation by SDPD, authorities said. No additional details about the incident were immediately available.
“(I’m) very happy to know that this is not a hate crime, just a one off,” Girton said.
While the exterior structures near the building sustained minor damage, Girton said rebuilding is not anticipated to hinder their normal business operations. The nightclub opened as usual on Friday at 2 p.m.
“We’re pretty resilient,” she explained. “We’ve been through a lot and we’re pretty good at navigating situations as they come up.”
“It’s just a different look for Halloween,” Girton laughed.
Anyone with information regarding the incident is encouraged to call SDPD at 619-236-6815 or to remain anonymous, Crime Stoppers at 619-235-8477.