A suspect is accused of “systematically” dousing the floor of a popular LGBTQ bar in Brooklyn before setting it alight is in custody on federal charges, according to court documents unsealed Thursday.
John Lhota, 24, of Brooklyn, was accused of intentionally and maliciously torching Rash Bar on April 3, according to a complaint filed in New York’s Eastern District Court.
Lhota was arrested Wednesday and made his first court appearance Thursday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn said.
In a statement, Acting New York Fire Department Commissioner Laura Kavanagh called the fire “a brazen act of arson that seriously injured two people, placed the lives of residents and dozens of firefighters in grave danger, and struck fear throughout an entire community.”
According to an affidavit from a New York Fire Department investigator, Lhota was captured on surveillance cameras buying a gas can and filling it with fuel before entering the bar in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood.
Cameras inside the bar captured him “systematically” pouring fuel on the floor, the investigator says.
“The footage shows him splashing the gasoline around a passageway and an adjacent customer area while a bartender and another person go about their business nearby, apparently unaware of the nature of Lhota’s actions or what would follow,” he says.
Lhota allegedly tossed a lit cigarette onto the pool of gas and walked away, the affidavit says. But the fire failed to catch, so he returned and used a lighter, igniting an explosion, according to the affidavit.
At 9:24 p.m., three minutes after Lhota was seen allegedly pouring fuel, a camera captured him running from the building, the affidavit says.
Three days later, Lhota was arrested at his apartment building after allegedly assaulting a woman. The woman viewed security video from Rash and helped identify him as the alleged arsonist, the affidavit says.
Lhota faces a federal charge because the bar is used for interstate and foreign commerce, including buying and selling foreign goods, the affidavit says.
Lhota faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, the federal prosecutors’ office said.
It wasn’t immediately clear if he has a lawyer to speak on his behalf. Court records did not list one.
A possible motive is not identified in the complaint.
The bar, which opened five months ago and quickly became a go-to spot for LGBTQ nightlife, queer young adults and performers, was severely damaged, the affidavit says.
As of Thursday, a fundraiser for Rash had raised nearly $110,000 of a $200,000 goal for medical expenses, building repairs and out-of-work employees.
The bar’s owners have said they didn’t want to jump to conclusions about a possible motive. But one co-owner, Jake Sillen, said that it was “easy to see why our space would be an easy target for someone looking to do harm to the queer community.”
“People feel safe to be themselves, and it’s a shame that anybody would do anything to threaten this,” Sillen said.
Tat Bellamy-Walker contributed.