Hate crime motive considered in fires at Mexican restaurants


Investigators are trying to determine whether hate was the motive behind fires that were intentionally set Saturday morning at two Mexican restaurants in Pahrump.

"Not to investigate it as a possible hate crime would be remiss on our part," said Capt. Bill Becht of the Nye County Sheriff's Office.

Sheriff's deputies first responded around 4:20 a.m. Saturday to a fire at Su Mesa Mexican Restaurant, 1560 E. Calvada Blvd.

They found two improvised incendiary weapons, known as "Molotov cocktails," at the scene.

While there, deputies learned of a second fire down the street at El Leon de Oro Mexican Restaurant, 1720 E. Calvada Blvd. Again, evidence was found that pointed to arson.

Roberto Guerra and his older brother, Mario, opened El Leon de Oro in May 2003. Roberto Guerra, who lives in Beatty, said he visited the scene of the fire Saturday.

"Everything's gone inside," he said during a telephone interview Wednesday.

Roberto Guerra, a native of Mexico who is "very proud" of his U.S. citizenship, said he has never experienced racial discrimination and has no idea whether it motivated someone to damage his restaurant.

"I don't want to point my finger to nobody," he said.

In November 2006, the Pahrump Town Board enacted a controversial ordinance that declared English the official town language, set restrictions on flying foreign flags and denied town benefits to undocumented immigrants. It was never enforced.

Three months later, after four of the panel's five members had been replaced, the board voted to repeal the ordinance.

"Pahrump is a nice town," said Roberto Guerra. "I think it's a place to grow a family."

He and his family have lived in Beatty for 23 years; his brother lives in Las Vegas. He said they have never received any threats.

Roberto Guerra said he wept Saturday when he saw his restaurant. He said he cried for the half dozen employees who lost their jobs because of the fire.

Roberto Guerra vowed to reopen the business as soon as possible.

For now, he is left wondering why his restaurant was targeted. "It's something I don't understand," he said.

According to a statement from the Nye County Sheriff's Office, the front window of Su Mesa was broken when deputies arrived, and they saw flames inside.

They also saw a beer bottle stuffed with a rag, which was on fire, under the bench in front of the business. Molotov cocktails are typically made by filling a glass bottle with fuel and a "fuse" that consists of a fuel-soaked rag. Someone then lights the fuse and hurls the bottle at a target, causing a fireball.

According to the statement from the Sheriff's Office, a second Molotov cocktail was found inside Su Mesa at the origin of the fire.

"Deputies' quick actions preserved evidence and were able to contain the fire until Pahrump Fire arrived and took command of the scene," according to the statement.

A spokeswoman at the Nye County Assessor's Office said Maria Zepeda purchased the Su Mesa property in October 2004 from a relative. Zepeda could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

"Further investigation revealed that a raised, white SUV-type vehicle was seen rapidly leaving the area prior to the Su Mesa fire being called in," according to the statement from the Sheriff's Office.

While deputies were at the scene of the Su Mesa fire, a witness informed them that white smoke was coming from the rooftop of El Leon de Oro. Authorities said they again found evidence of arson, but they did not elaborate.

Becht said both restaurants remained closed Wednesday.

Becht said authorities had no suspects. The state Fire Marshal's Division is leading the investigation.

"We've been in contact with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and it's a coordinated effort to determine the cause of this," said Lt. Mike Dzyak of the Fire Marshal's Division.

He said the fire has been classified as "incendiary." He declined to speculate on a motive and said he did not have a damage estimate.

Nina Delgadillo, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the case could lead to federal charges because it involves commercial buildings and because Molotov cocktails were used.

Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at cgeer@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0264.