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Studio City Block Still Hurting a Year After Arson Blaze : Crime: Business remains down and scaffolding is still up for repairs of $2.5 million in damage. The man accused of setting the fire remains unfit for trial.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year ago today, Richard B. Crystal watched a raging fire swallow a Ventura Boulevard shopping strip in Studio City and wondered to himself: “How long will it take before things get back to normal?”

Crystal, a Lamb Realty office administrator, still awaits the answer.

All along the 12100 block of the boulevard, life remains far from normal a year after an arson fire gutted two stores, damaged several others and caused $2.5 million in damage. Owners of mom-and-pop stores complain that their businesses have not fully recovered from the devastating blaze and wonder if their “bombed out” block, once bustling with pedestrian traffic, will be able to revive itself as the economy languishes in recession.

“This is an area that used to be known for people being able to park their cars and walk around and shop,” said Michael Ruth, owner of Michael Ruth Salon, which was only slightly damaged in the fire. “It’s bad enough having empty stores, but looking like you’ve had a bomb blast doesn’t help.”

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Pedestrian traffic is sparse. Construction scaffolds line the sidewalk. Several shops remain empty. A few stores have moved to other spaces along the block and one, Valley Arts Guitar Center, has moved away entirely. One of the two major stores destroyed in the fire, Pier One Imports, has not reopened and the other, Strouds Linen Warehouse, reopened only six weeks ago.

Traces of the fire show up throughout Crystal’s realty office, which was damaged by smoke and water. A candy dish is brown around the edges. Papers in some files are charred along one edge. And visitors to the office sniff the air and “ask me to this day if I smell smoke,” Crystal said.

The shopkeepers, meanwhile, hope the opening of a new bookshop in the former Mann Studio City movie theater will encourage more pedestrian traffic and rejuvenate the block. Until then, merchants said they are commiserating about bad business and the hassles associated with renovations.

For a month after the fire, employees at Lamb Realty worked out of an unheated trailer in the rear parking lot. And for several months after that, the employees worked in a partly completed office that flooded during heavy rains. “It’s something I never want to go through again,” Assistant Manager Lenore Leon said.

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For Leon, Ruth and other shopkeepers, the problems of the past year began just after noon on the day after Christmas, when the first clouds of smoke billowed from the Strouds and the Pier One. Firefighters responded quickly because they were just down the block mopping up another blaze, which prosecutors blame on the same man who torched the buildings in the 12100 block.

That man is John Charles Kellogges, a 39-year-old transient who was arrested in a restaurant restroom about 10 blocks away the day after the fires. Kellogges, who also is charged with other fires in Studio City and Encino, was judged mentally incompetent to stand trial last month in San Fernando Superior Court.

He will be re-evaluated every six months until he is judged mentally competent to stand trial or until he has been hospitalized for the maximum sentence he faces, which is 20 years.

Kellogges was arrested after another homeless man, Harold Van Buskirk, spotted him in the restroom at Charles’ restaurant on Ventura Boulevard about a mile east of the fire scene and called police. Van Buskirk and waitress Colleen Stinchfield were beset by reporters after Kellogges was arrested, but their lives have since normalized.

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“It was fun,” Stinchfield said. “We were besieged by the media and everybody I went to high school with. I got my 15 minutes of fame that Andy Warhol promised. So now I can live my life in peace and not wait for it.”

Van Buskirk, however, is bitter about the incident. Still living with his dog Rocky in a motor home parked in a Studio City commuter lot, he said he has been rejected by the businesses he was trying to help.

“I’m not really very happy,” he said. “It’s like I was completely forgotten after that--a hero for a day.”

Van Buskirk, whose nickname is Hook because he lost his left arm as a young man, supports himself through odd jobs, some of which he was offered after the fires.

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He wants to produce a feature-length film written by a friend titled “Attack of the Motorcycle Monster.”

Van Buskirk described it as a children’s adventure movie.

Although he said at the time of the fire that he wanted nothing in return for spotting Kellogges, Van Buskirk said earlier this week that he didn’t really mean it and is disappointed that he wasn’t rewarded over his protests.

People sometimes “will say, ‘Don’t buy me anything,’ but . . . want it just the same,” he said. “The businesses should have gotten together to give me something. I got dreams, too.”

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