By Guiseppe Ricapito

The Union Democrat

A fire erupted at the closed Rosalinda’s Gentlemen’s Club in Jamestown early Tuesday morning, destroying most of the motel structure and damaging a room in the nightclub.

Fire officials have not identified the blaze as arson, but referred to the two seperate fire origins — one at the outside of the north end of the motel and one in an interior back room of the nightclub — as “very suspicious.”

"It's not common for us to have fires at two separate commercial buildings that are not occupied," said Keven Patton, Cal Fire Battalion Chief.

Tuolumne County Fire Investigator Steven Gregory walked around the outside of the building and along the charred motel row to study the burn pattern of the early morning blaze, which was reported to emergency personnel at about 3:10 a.m. on Tuesday morning.

The nine-unit motel row, consisting of one dwelling on the north end and eight successive hotel rooms, had been reduced to mounds of ashen furniture, blackened wood framing and clumps of rubble. A skeleton of cement remained along the rear and only two hotel units on the south end had been spared.

At the northwest corner of the nightclub building, about 50 yards from the motel, the inside of a back room, located near the kitchen, had also been scorched by fire. A printer, a microwave and a toaster oven were singed black on top of shelving. Bare, charred scaffolding and a ventilation hole cut by fire crews were visible above.

Most of the nightclub and the facade visible from Highway 108, remained intact. The interior bar, strip club stage and an adjacent lounge room were all undamaged, but bore the scars of heavy smoke that had filled the building.

Gregory, who referred to the fire as “very suspicious,” said he could not definitively characterize the fire as arson, yet. An official determination on the cause of the fire would be made “in a few days,” he said.

A March 1 raid of Rosalinda’s Gentlemen’s Club resulted in 10 arrests. The next day, the building was condemned by the county as unsafe for human occupancy.

Bruce Evenson, of Modesto, was driving into Tuolumne County in his dark-colored Corvette to visit area casinos just after 3 a.m. on Tuesday, he said, when he noticed smoke and flames billowing from the motel.

“There was hardly any traffic out here but there was smoke out there,” he said, pointing to the shell of the motel property.

Evenson drove through the light at O’Byrnes Ferry Road, turned his car around and parked along the edge of the westbound lane of Highway 108 before calling in the fire.
“They didn’t believe it when I called it in. They were like, really?”

The main entrance gate near the motel was open when he got out of his car, Evenson said. He and another bystander called out to see if anyone was in the building, but the roar and popping of the flames forced him to retreat back to his vehicle.

At about 3:15 a.m., he saw an person with a backpack, obscured in the knee-high grasses and darkness, walking westbound along the eastbound lane of Highway 108.

At about 8:30 a.m., Gregory was seen speaking to Evenson, who was sitting inside his Corvette parked at the outside of the gate.
Patton said the fire units arrived to the strip club property at 3:20 a.m. and observed that the motel structure was “three-quarters involved” with flames and threatening a power pole that was positioned above it.

Electrical power to the property was shut off March 2 when officials served the building code compliance notice.

“It was a hell of a firefight,” Patton said. “There was no slow going anything. We aggressively attacked this.”

There was only a minimal drizzle and a light wind when firefighters arrived, he added.

At 3:45 a.m., while six units fought the fire, smoke was observed billowing from the inside of the club. Fire crews were able to cut a ventilation hole to enter the building and stop the spread to the other rooms of the nightclub.

Most of the fire had been extinguished by 4:15 a.m.

Patton said he and the other firefighters had not seen any people or vehicles in the area and he could not speculate to the cause.

“There was significantly more fire on the north end of the motel,” he said. “It’s a total loss.”

Seven engines, three water tenders and 25 firefighters, with units from Tuolumne County Fire, Cal Fire, Sonora City Fire, and Stanislaus County Consolidated Fire responded, he said.

Sgt. Deborah Moss said the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office was advised by the California Highway Patrol at 3:25 a.m. that there was a fire at the site, and deputies responded to assist with traffic and safety control.

Moss said she was not aware of any pending criminal investigation or suspects as it pertained to potential arson case.

“We would assist in any way possible but we are not at this point involved,” she said.
By 7 a.m., fire crews were involved in a mop-up operation, hosing off the smoking debris and rubble. Inside the two moderately intact rooms, building insulation hung from the ceiling, and discarded household items, including a jumbo jar of pickles, were strewn on the floor.

On March 9, more than a half-dozen people participated in a mass clean-up and salvage effort in the back lot of the property.

The washing machines, box televisions, tools, and debris present on Friday were gone by Tuesday morning. A truck left near the motel had been badly burned by radiant heat.

During the clean-up operation, Gregory and Doug Oliver, chief building official for Tuolumne County, walked through the entry way, along the bar and through the stage room and kitchen to the burned storage room. Each of them evaluated the burned room and the charred, sodden debris left inside of it.

“This would be the second thing they set on fire,” Oliver said to Gregory, just outside the building in the front lot.

“They were here while he was doing it,” Gregory said.

Oliver said the property owners could acquire a building permit to repair the damage or a demolition permit of they chose to destroy it.

“We give them whatever option we can in the realm of code compliance,” he said. “The bare minimum is to keep it safe.”

If the property owners did nothing or the property could not be secured from the public, he said, it could be determined a public nuisance and the county could spend abatement funds to clean up the area.

Oliver declined to comment on whether he suspected arson.

But the design of the motel, he said, pointing to a standing wall on the second-to-last motel unit, did not have any cement fire-blocking framing in the attic to stop the fire from traveling between the units.

Modern day building code would require fire-blocking walls, he said.

The Tuolumne County Assessor’s Office assessed at a value of the 2.896 acre property, which does not include the structures, at $401,000 in 2018.

The owner of the property, Rosalinda Aponte Sanmartin, 78, is still wanted by the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office on a felony charge of maintaining a drug house. Sanmartin was not at the business when Tuolumne County SWAT deputies, Tuolumne Narcotics Team agents, Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control officers, and multiple Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office detectives and patrol units raided the business.
Her daughter, Marlinda Beth Russo, 47, of Manteca, was arrested during the raid on felony maintaining a drug house and misdemeanor renting a place for the sale of a controlled substance charges at the nightclub, bar and motel property,
Officers with the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office and the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage and Control conducted a months-long undercover investigation into reports of narcotics sales, prostitution, assaults and thefts at the property.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.

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