It was arguably the most high-profile arson case in recent Milwaukee history, an explosion and fire that engulfed a bar, three restaurants – including East Side institution Pizza Man – and 10 upstairs apartments. Thankfully, no employees or residents were injured, but the building and its businesses were completely destroyed. Anger over the fire remains today, in no small part because whoever set the fire, it would appear, got away with it.
It all began with a bang.
While the residents of the apartments on the corner of Oakland and North avenues were used to the sounds of traffic and the busy restaurants below, this was different. This was something else.
This thunderous boom, around 3:30 on the morning of Jan. 19, 2010, could not only be heard, but also felt.
Moments after tenants were shaken awake, smoke began seeping into the apartments and alarms began screeching. Clutching the few belongings they could carry, the residents fled outside into the dark, frigid night.
Within minutes, firefighters arrived on the scene and quickly found the fire had already spread through the entire building. Milwaukee Fire Department Battalion Chief Jim Poliak ordered the firefighters searching inside for the source of the fire to evacuate and called for reinforcements. “There was no chance of putting the fire out with the personnel we had on hand at that time,” he says.
As more firefighters arrived, they blocked off the streets and used ladder trucks to spray water down onto the building and into the apartments’ windows. They faced danger from both fire – the blaze fed on accelerants such as alcohol and cooking materials from the bars and restaurants – and ice, as the water poured on the building froze in thick sheets all around it and in icicles on nearby power lines.
As flames shot through the roof and out windows, and smoke billowed eastward, Green and her husband joined a growing crowd to watch the effort to save the famed Pizza Man as well as Grecian Delight, a gyro, chicken and burger joint; Black & White Cafe, a burger, wings and sandwich spot; and Cush Lounge, an often bustling bar. “It was nothing but fire and smoke all over,” recalls Green.
“There was never any question as to whether it was an arson – just who did it.”
— Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Spokeswoman Ashlee Sherrill
More than 150 firefighters battled the five-alarm blaze for more than five hours before getting it under control. Three were injured in the process. By the time it was over, the upstairs apartments on the east end of the building had collapsed into the first floor. The entire building, valued at more than $3 million, was ruined.
“Given the size and scope of it, it was the biggest fire of my career,” says Poliak, who retired in December 2011 after 30 years with the fire department.
While the fire had been put out, the protracted investigation and years of court battles that followed would bring no closure to those affected and leave many questions unanswered.
Scrambling for work, he learned from a friend that Rudy’s Pizzeria, a small storefront on the East Side, had gone bankrupt and he could get it for only $2,800. “I borrowed the money and turned it into Pizza Man,” Amidzich says. “I needed a job, so I bought one.”
When he opened up at 1800 E. North Ave. in 1970, then 28-year-old Amidzich offered pizza and fried chicken only by delivery or carry-out. He delivered until 4 a.m. on weekends, making him popular as one of few options to satisfy late-night, post-bar munchies.
Business was good, but he had to work almost nonstop. “I had a bunch of stoned people for customers and a bunch of stoned people working for me – I had to be in the middle to translate, so I couldn’t leave,” Amidzich, now 76, says with a laugh.
About two years in, he expanded into the shop next door to add a dining room that became well known for its ornate woodwork and a cozy, dimly lit ambiance perfect for dates.
To increase visibility on that busy corner, he added the iconic black and yellow-lettered sign out front and created the logo of a long-haired, mustachioed superhero stepping over a mushroom. Later, he commissioned an artist to create the wavy, patterned brick exterior and build a heavy, oversized front door.
“Our food was excellent,” Amidzich says. “The pizza – we had fresh ingredients and a very unique crust that everyone loved.”
Over four decades, the Pizza Man reputation grew and a loyal following flourished. The restaurant also became a bit of a trendsetter. “We got big into wine before a lot of other people,” he says. “And I would do a lot of goofy things like taking out ads in California newspapers that would say things like ‘Come to Pizza Man – conveniently located 2,164 miles due east of Napa Valley.’”
It was also very profitable. At the time of the fire in 2010, Amidzich says, Pizza Man was grossing $1 million a year and had a $240,000 inventory of wine, most of it in a basement cellar. “Really though, it was priceless,” he says. He declined to say how much his insurance paid him after the fire.
Next door to Pizza Man, Cush Lounge was known for drawing a diverse crowd. “Business was amazing,” says former owner William Jenkins, who bought the place in 2002. “You couldn’t beat the location.” Jenkins, who was also grossing about $1 million a year, also declined to discuss his insurance payment, saying only it was “not enough.”
The bar burned slightly in the fire – Pizza Man actually suffered no fire damage – but both businesses were wrecked by water damage. “Ice machines, desks, wine – it was all floating in the basement,” says Amidzich.
Top: Court exhibit, The destroyed building housed (from left) Pizza Man, Cush Lounge, Grecian Delight and Black & White Cafe.
Second: Mike Amidzich (left) founded Pizza Man in 1970, about three years before this photo was taken. With him is a cousin who worked for him.
Third: Court exhibit, the fire-ruined facades of Grecian Delight and Black & White.
Fourth: Feras Rahman outside his Black & White Cafe the night of its soft opening in December 2008.
“It was devastating,” Jenkins says. “That business was my life.”
Grecian Delight and Black & White Cafe, however, did burn, and those two restaurants’ owners caught plenty of heat from investigators and lawyers after the fire as well.
Even as firefighters battled the blaze that January morning, investigators began questioning witnesses and the business owners. Rick Hankins, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, quickly determined that the fire had started in Black & White Cafe because it was the most badly burned.
And it was suspected early on that the fire was not an accident but arson.
A black Labrador K-9 named Moon quickly sniffed out gasoline on burned debris in the cafe – a discovery later confirmed by lab tests. Surveillance video from a business across the street showed “a ball of fire” inside the Black & White Cafe just before the initial 911 call, ATF spokeswoman Ashlee Sherrill says. Forensic investigators determined gasoline was poured near the restrooms in the back of the restaurant and when it was lit, the gas fumes vaporized, causing an explosion. “There was never any question as to whether it was an arson – just who did it,” Sherrill says.
Hankins and the ATF quickly turned their sights on the owner of the Black & White Cafe, then-26-year-old Feras Rahman.
A tall, thin man who wears a tightly trimmed goatee, Rahman, who opened the cafe in 2008, was questioned by investigators a few times. “They asked me the same questions over and over again,” he recalls. “Then they said, ‘Well, we suspect you had something to do with it.’ When they said that, I was shocked, because it didn’t make sense. I just lost everything that I worked for and now I’m being blamed for it.”
The ATF’s Sherrill – who wouldn’t clear Hankins to speak to Milwaukee Magazine for this story – says that all evidence pointed to Rahman as the culprit. “There was no forced entry into his unit. The back door was left unlocked,” she says. “Rahman lied about the health of his business [and about] the potential sale of his business. … He spoke with a real estate broker two weeks prior to the arson.”
Further, a laptop that Rahman had said was destroyed in the fire was found in his home, and on it were images and maps of the alleys and streets surrounding the now-destroyed building. “Whoever was using the laptop was trying to find a backdoor pathway to the back of the building,” Sherrill says.
Charges didn’t come right away…
It wasn’t until May 2011 that a grand jury indicted Rahman on a number of felonies, including arson by explosion, arson to commit fraud and making false statements to investigators about the laptop. If convicted on all charges, Rahman faced more than 50 years in prison.
“The potential loss of life of building occupants, responding law enforcement or fire service personnel is what makes arson such a violent crime,” ATF assistant special agent Fred Milanowski said in a press release announcing the charges that capped off a 16-month investigation.
While their case was circumstantial, federal prosecutors felt confident they had the right guy when they took it to trial a year later, in early May 2012. Key in their argument was the fact that Rahman was planning to open a used car dealership on the South Side and wanted out of what they said was a failing restaurant. Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined multiple requests for an interview for this story, but in court documents, prosecutors didn’t mince words about Rahman’s alleged involvement. Rahman “maliciously … devised and participated in a scheme” to set the fire and then “falsely claim that the fire was accidental” to receive a $135,000 insurance payout, the indictment states.
Rahman’s attorneys from the federal defender’s office, of course, felt otherwise. “We said from day one – and continue to say – that Feras Rahman was a victim,” says Dan Stiller, who was a federal defender on Rahman’s case during the trial but is now in private practice. “The reality of it is that law enforcement did a great job establishing that the fire initiated in the Black & White Cafe, and law enforcement did a great job establishing that the fire was intentionally set,” continues Stiller. “But as far as Feras Rahman’s involvement in setting that fire, law enforcement didn’t have shit.”
On the night of the fire, Rahman shut down the business and drove to his residence in South Milwaukee, Stiller says, a fact supported by cellphone records. “There’s no question that Feras Rahman didn’t set the fire,” Stiller says. “He was also then accused of aiding and abetting whoever set the fire, but the government never introduced any evidence as to who that person may have been, much less Feras’ connection to whoever that entirely unidentified person may have been.” Stiller says prosecutors stretched the facts to fit Rahman no matter what. “Any number of fairly silly theories were relied upon for why he started the fire, things like the restaurant was too busy and he was having to work too hard, to the restaurant was failing,” says Stiller. Rahman says the cafe’s business was good enough, bringing in $5,000 to $8,000 profit a month.
Rahman’s attorneys also pointed to a different suspect they say investigators overlooked: Andy Karabelas, the owner of the restaurant next door, Grecian Delight.
It was Karabelas’ restaurant that was failing, said Rahman’s attorneys. “Karabelas was hemorrhaging financially, in serious debt, was being shut off by restaurant suppliers [for non-payment], and maintained a $250,000 insurance policy,” the defense asserted in one court filing. In addition, Karabelas, who had operated Grecian Delight since 1987, the defense said, was upset that Rahman’s restaurant was cutting into his business next door.
All of that was enough motivation to burn down Rahman’s spot, and the defense also said Karabelas had the means to do it through a shared basement door between the restaurants. “It was a lockable door with sole control of the lock on the Greek side,” explains Stiller. “The particular layout of the basement made it more an open-air area than discrete private property.”
Karabelas, a short, rotund man who speaks in a soft, almost overly polite fashion, strongly denies having either the intent or ability to set the fire.
“We were established and had regular clientele. Every restaurant has debt, but I was making a living from it and paying my debt as I went,” he says. About the shared basement, he says the door was always locked and that he kept freezers and furniture in front of it. “I never went through there,” he says. “I never had access.”
Karabelas, now 54, expected to be blamed when he took the stand. “The prosecutors and ATF told me [the defense was] trying to pin it on somebody so they can get reasonable doubt,” he says, adding he had no rivalry with Rahman. “I’m not the kind of person to have enemies. We exchanged food – I ate there.”
Did he have anything to do with the fire? “Are you kidding me? Absolutely not,” Karabelas answers sternly. “That kind of thought would never cross my mind.”
[alert type=white ]
Tough Cases to Crack
Arson investigations are always an uphill battle, says Robert Schaal of the International Association of Arson Investigators, who worked 27 years in the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“First, you have to determine the cause, rule out any accidental fires and definitively determine what caused it and that it was intentionally set,” he says. “Then, you have to gather evidence and identify who did it and see if they had the motive, means and the opportunity to commit the crime.”
That means arson has one of the lowest clearance rates of any crime, Schaal says, meaning investigations usually don’t identify the culprit. Of the nearly 57,000 arsons reported across the country in 2010, just more than 11,000 arrests were made, a clearance rate of about 19 percent, according to the FBI. Arrests were made in 21 percent of Wisconsin’s 676 arsons in 2010.
Once an arrest is made, prosecution is another big hurdle, adds Schaal: “You have to get a prosecutor interested in bringing the charges, and that’s kind of a tall task to begin with because the forensics are very different than [prosecutors] typically deal with” in other crimes such as murder, rape or assault. Many cases considered “cleared” with an arrest don’t end up being charged. And at trial, Schaal says, a conviction usually hinges on an expert convincing the jury that the fire was intentionally set and accidental causes are not possible.
While no state or federal agency tracks arson convictions, Schaal believes that – just like arrest rates – that successful prosecutions are relatively rare.[/alert]
On May 18, 2012, after a two-week trial, the jury – to the shock of many – acquitted Rahman on the arson counts and found him guilty only of lying to investigators about the laptop. Rahman says he was “happy, really happy,” thinking he would get probation because of his otherwise clean criminal record, or at most six months in prison, based on federal sentencing guidelines.
The judge, however, had a different idea.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kelly Watzka asked U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa to apply what’s known as “acquitted conduct sentencing,” a controversial practice that takes into account the totality of the charges against a defendant, even those of which he has been acquitted. The jury’s verdict “does not necessarily translate to a finding of actual innocence,” wrote Watzka.
The U.S. Attorneys offered a few excuses as to why the jury found Rahman not guilty and why the judge should still factor in his alleged role in starting the fire. “The jury may have been troubled by the fact that [prosecutors] couldn’t prove whether the defendant actually started the fire or whether he procured someone else to do it for him – even though he would be criminally responsible under either scenario,” she wrote. “They may have been uncomfortable finding guilt beyond a reasonable doubt because of the defense theory that fire scene investigators, working under incredibly difficult circumstances, should have done more.”
The judge, who died in 2016, explained his reasoning with dramatic flair. “Why does an honest man tell lies? To cover something up,” said Randa, according to court transcripts. “Shakespeare said, ‘Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.’”
He threw the book at Rahman, applying acquitted conduct sentencing to his lone conviction: 30 months in prison, plus three years of probation upon release.
After another year and a half, in November 2015, Rahman was completely – and legally – cleared of any wrongdoing. A three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago overturned Rahman’s conviction for lying about the laptop, writing “the fact that one of his computers was found at his home and did not contain business records was not sufficient to find him guilty of the charged false statement.”
Further, the appeals court found that Randa erred in determining that Rahman was the only one with access to his restaurant, having neglected the shared basement space, and that in repeatedly searching the basement – which had been ruled out as the fire’s origin – investigators had exceeded Rahman’s signed search consent.
Watzka declined to be interviewed for this story. Reached by email, she described the status of this case as “closed” and said that new charges are “not a possibility.”
Though the dark cloud of impending prison had lifted, Rahman, now 34, says the whole experience has left its mark. He never goes to the East Side anymore. “Too many bad memories and flashbacks about the fire and what I had and don’t have anymore,” he says, sighing deeply.
About six months after the fire, Rahman did end up opening – and still operates – the used car dealership that prosecutors say was the reason he started the fire. Trans Auto sits on a small lot just off the corner of West Lincoln and West Forest Home avenues.
From time to time, he misses the restaurant business. “It was going good, and it was pretty profitable. I liked it,” says Rahman. “I’ve thought about doing it again, but I just don’t have the capital.”
Life has also drastically changed for the other business owners since the fire. Jenkins, the former Cush Lounge owner, is now a vice president with a global marketing agency. While he still feels anger that “the place was taken from me,” he admits that stepping back from the wild, late-night bar scene was most likely for the best. “Cush burning to the ground probably saved my life. I wouldn’t be married with kids today if it was still going.”
Karabelas, the former Grecian Delight owner and Rahman’s scapegoat for the fire, has been working as the assistant manager of El Fuego Mexican Restaurante for the last seven years. “I still think about [Grecian Delight] every day,” he says wistfully. “I’m happy in this job – being in a restaurant is my niche – but it’s different than having your own place.”
The corner of Oakland and North is now unrecognizable from what it once was. In 2015, developer Robert Joseph finished construction of Edge on North, a 39-unit, high-end apartment building with street-level retail space that currently houses local specialty goods store The Waxwing, casual seafood restaurant FreshFin Poké and an Insomnia Cookies shop.
Pizza Man owner Amidzich was semi-retired at the time of the fire and figured he’d throw in the towel on the restaurant business after the fire. But others wouldn’t let him.
Aided by an investment group and the new chef and operations manager team of Zak and Sarah Baker, Pizza Man reopened on the corner of Downer Avenue and Belleview Place in July 2013. A huge space compared to the original restaurant’s 50-seat dining room, this location can hold 250 and spans two floors. The bar upstairs was reclaimed and restored from the burned original location.
Patrons waited hours for a table when the Downer location opened. “I couldn’t believe the loyalty – if I had waited another year, I could’ve lost all of that,” Amidzich says. The Pizza Man team also opened locations in Wauwatosa in 2015 and in Oak Creek in 2016. Amidzich remains part owner of Pizza Man, though he is now fully retired and dabbles in bitcoin trading to pass the time.
The new success helps, but the way Amidzich lost the original Pizza Man still stings. When Rahman’s not-guilty verdict was read, Amidzich “couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I know he did it – he got away with it. No doubt in my mind.”