When a suspicious fire in 2010 burned down the historic Riviera Roadhouse restaurant in Gardner, Illinois, the arsonist also unsuccessfully targeted the nearby Streetcar Diner that night.
That little-known fact was revealed in more than 200 pages of documents and dozens of photographs obtained through an open-records request for Illinois Fire Marshal’s Office reports from the June 8, 2010, blaze.
Not only did Route 66 lose one historic structure that night, but it came within an eyelash of losing two.
Media reports at the time said the fire that destroyed the Route 66 landmark was suspicious, but few other details were given.
The report by Illinois Fire Marshal Office investigator Kevin Smith stated the fire was started by “multiple incendiary devices” inside the Riviera Roadhouse. The devices consisted of a flammable liquid — identified as gasoline — in containers ignited by a wick or fuse. The report stated a K-9 unit used by the investigator to sniff fire-debris samples confirmed the arsonist’s use of an accelerant.
The report also stated investigators found another incendiary device inside “an out building known as the Trolley Car Cafe” — better known as the Streetcar Diner, a former trolley converted into a restaurant in Gardner during the 1930s and later moved to the Riviera grounds after its restoration by Illinois Route 66 Association volunteers.
Photographs taken by the investigator the night of the fire show several feet of a long, green fireworks fuse running from near the entrance of the Streetcar Diner to its counter.
Behind the counter, the fuse led to a gallon plastic jug of amber liquid — identified as gasoline — beside a cardboard box stuffed with paper towels, rags and other items.
The Streetcar Diner’s linoleum floor showed marks where the fuse had burned but inexplicably extinguished itself several feet short of its target.
In a recent email, John Weiss, who leads the preservation committee for the Illinois Route 66 Association and was a champion in restoring the Streetcar Diner, said he saw a piece of the linoleum had been removed after the fire but never knew why.
The association replaced the piece of linoleum and later moved the Streetcar Diner near the historic two-cell jail in Gardner.
The report stated the Riviera Roadhouse had been closed for several months because of fire-code violations, and the previous tenant — known as Bob Keller — had backed out of his lease. The restaurant was locked, and its propane and natural-gas service were disconnected.
The report stated all natural and accidental possibilities of the fire’s cause were eliminated.
Laurie Campbell, the daughter-in-law of previous longtime Riviera Roadhouse owners Bob and Peggy Kraft, said in a recent telephone interview the property was shown to a prospective buyer three days before the fire.
The Riviera Roadhouse wasn’t rebuilt. No one was charged. Illinois has no statute of limitations for felonies such as arson.
Bob Kraft died in 2014 at age 90. Peggy Kraft died at age 89 in 2013.
Other facts that emerged from the fire marshal’s reports, court documents and other reporting:
— Bob Keller, now 56, the previous operator of the restaurant before the fire, used the name as an alias. According to Will County court records and other documents, his real name at the time was Robert M. Jurica, and he lived in nearby Joliet, Illinois.
Jurica legally changed his name to Robert M. Keller in February 2016.
Jurica became the subject of several foreclosures from 2000 to 2010. He also was charged with felony aggravated battery in 2013. The charge was amended to misdemeanor battery; he was sentenced to 24 months of supervision and fined $2,500.
— Some of the fire marshal’s documents were redacted — either to protect the identities of witnesses or to prevent identification of a suspect or suspects; however, enough information was retained in the reports to show the fire marshal focused on one subject of interest in the arson investigation.
The fire marshal issued subpoenas for information on calls and texts made June 10-30, 2010, from one cellphone number. The number in a copy of the subpoena was unredacted. Campbell identified the number as belonging to Jurica, aka Keller.
The fire marshal also issued subpoenas for June 2010 cell-tower records for the number, specifically from Grundy County, Illinois, to areas near Mercer, Wisconsin. Campbell said Keller, aka Jurica, called her from Wisconsin the morning after the fire.
The fire marshal also subpoenaed I-Pass transponder data from the Illinois Tollway for an account registered to Jurica.
In addition, the fire marshal subpoenaed financial, property and ownership records for Riviera Roadhouse. Incorporation papers acquired by the fire marshal’s office showed Jurica as the sole stockholder of the business.
— Fire-inspection reports from 2009 show at least nine code violations at the restaurant when Keller ran it.
Because of a lack of a fire-sprinkler system, the report stated Keller was allowed to run the restaurant with fewer than 50 patrons at a time for six months; however, the state fire marshal and Gardner Fire Department ordered the Riviera closed in March 2010 because Keller “never initiated the installation” of such a system, and the restaurant was found to be over its allowed occupancy.
Keller had quarreled with the fire department and fire marshal over the violations. According to one Chicago-area report, Keller said he would contact the fire marshal’s office to air his concerns. After a recent search, the fire marshal’s office found no record of correspondence with Keller or Jurica.
A report from May 26, 2010 — barely two weeks before the fire — also stated some safety equipment had been removed from the restaurant. Campbell said Keller had removed piping and wiring from the Riviera.
Keller’s last attorney of record, Barry Pechter of Palos Hills, Illinois, refused to comment, citing confidentiality.
When a reporter called Keller’s cellphone number, a man answered, said he had trouble hearing the call and said he would call back. No phone call was returned. A message left on the number’s voicemail also was not returned.
(Image of the interior of the Streetcar Diner in Gardner, Illinois, by Jeanette E. Spaghetti via Flickr; all other photos via the Illinois Fire Marshal’s Office)