Kentucky State Police suspect arson in the May 10 fire that gutted a Central Kentucky landmark -- the Woodford County castle.
A preliminary investigation by state police and the Kentucky State Fire Marshal's Office indicates "a high probability that the fire was intentionally set," police said in a news release yesterday.
Trooper Ron Turley, spokesman for the Frankfort state police post, and Kevin Dunn, an arson investigator for that post, would not provide any other details or discuss possible suspects or motives.
"We can't say why" police think the fire was arson-related, Turley said. "I don't want to release anything that we may have used to come up with that determination."
But police said the fire is classified as second-degree arson, a felony punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison.
Under state law, a person is guilty of second-degree arson when he starts a fire or causes an explosion "with the intent to destroy or damage a building" or "to collect or facilitate the collection of insurance proceeds for such loss."
The castle residence -- a two-story, 10,400-square-foot house with no basement -- had been undergoing renovation when the fire was reported.
Castle owner Tom Post, the Miami lawyer who was having the structure restored, "seriously hopes to rebuild it" and use it as a site to hold fund-raising events for charities, spokeswoman Mary Ellen Slone said yesterday.
In a statement yesterday, Post said: "Like so many others in the community, we have learned today that a possible cause of the devastating blaze at the castle has been listed as arson. We assume the investigation will continue."
Police will look to see whether anyone might have entered the castle property aside from contractors.
Woodford County Fire Chief Bennie Green said yesterday that an ambulance crew that first arrived on the scene found a gate "pulled to, but it did not have a lock on it at the time."
Green also said that the crew reported a large wooden door at the castle wall was pulled shut "but evidently it wasn't locked."
Turley, the state police spokesman, said investigators "are questioning everybody" in connection with the fire.
Among those questioned is Richard Besola, 59, a Miami resident who acted as a project manager overseeing the castle renovation.
In February, Besola was charged with driving under the influence by Woodford County police, but he was unable to attend a scheduled appearance Monday in Woodford District Court.
In a handwritten note faxed to district court, addressed to his defense attorney and included in his court file, Besola wrote: "I am unable to meet you this a.m. State police are taking us to Frankfort to review a fire at the castle now."
Woodford County Attorney Alan George said it was his understanding that Besola could not be in district court because state police wanted him to take a lie-detector test.
"That was the reason why he was not in court, that he was in the process of being polygraphed," George said yesterday. "That's why we continued his case."
However, George, who has not discussed the fire with state police, said that doesn't necessarily mean Besola is a suspect. "I think he was obviously a project manager of some sort, and they may be doing this for everybody" who had been on the site, he said.
Asked by a reporter earlier this week whether he had been asked to take a polygraph, Besola said: "Not yet. ... They've interviewed me a couple of times."
Turley and Dunn, the arson investigator, would not say whether Besola or anyone else had taken a polygraph. Contacted on his cell phone yesterday, Besola said he had not seen the police news release and could not comment on it.
By its nature, arson destroys evidence, and that makes it a difficult crime on which to assemble a case, said Woodford Commonwealth's Attorney Gordie Shaw.
"It makes the evidence a little more time-consuming to find," Shaw said.
"But, as arson investigators will tell you, there are many tell-tale signs which indicate whether or not a fire's intentional, with burn patterns. We've actually had arsonists walk through the accelerant they used and leave footprints."
Asked whether he was surprised that police determined the fire to be arson rather than accidental, Shaw said, "In this business, nothing is ever really a surprise."
Last week, Post, the castle owner, had a a banner up on the front gates facing U.S. 60 that thanked well-wishers for support. People left flowers and posters at the gate.
In his statement yesterday, Post said that his "heartfelt appreciation and thanks go out to everyone for their gracious outpouring of support during these difficult times."
Post graduated from Lafayette High School and received degrees from the University of Kentucky. He bought the castle property for nearly $1.8 million in November, three months after the death of its previous owner, Lexington contractor Rex Martin Sr.
As tourists on a trip to Europe, Martin and his first wife, Caroline, fell in love with homes with big walls around them. After they returned to Lexington, the couple bought land in 1968. The Martins divorced in 1975, while the castle was still under construction. They never moved in.