Politics

Brooklyn LGBTQ bar owners promise return after alleged arson



BUSHWICK, Brooklyn (PIX11) — They’d only had their doors open for five months before the Brooklyn LGBTQ+ bar was set ablaze, but the owners of Rash are determined to reopen at the same spot rather than move. 

“It shows resilience both on our part and the part of our community,” co-owner Jake Sillen said. “I think it’s an important message to show that we can bounce back.”

An alleged arsonist doused the floor at Rash with gasoline, threw a lit cigarette on it, and then ignited the gasoline with a lighter, causing an explosion and a fire in early April, officials said. After the fire, co-owner Claire Bendiner described seeing “enormous flames up to the ceiling.” Police arrested John Lhota in connection with the blaze.

“For the time that he was out on the streets, it felt like nowhere, at least in the area really, felt safe,” Sillen said.

Two workers were injured in the fire. They were both burned and they’ve seen “significant recovery” in the last few weeks, according to Sillen.

Much of the damage was to the bar itself, which suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars worth in damage. Beyond time for some minor cleanup, Sillen and Bendiner haven’t been allowed back inside much to get specific structural estimations because of safety concerns. 

“It takes longer than you can possibly imagine,” Sillen said.

In the months since the fire, Rash has launched a fundraising effort on GoFundMe. They’ve raised more than $120,000. Other venues in the area have also hosted fundraisers.

“It feels amazing,” Sillen said. “I would never have thought that in the five months that we were open that we would have been able to generate that much love and that many relationships and connections with people.”

They’ve received messages of support from all over the world, according to Sillen. People from the United Kingdom and Argentina have already made plans to visit Rash when they’re in New York.

A trial date has not yet been set for Lhota. Sillen doesn’t know why Lhota would have allegedly set Rash on fire and, while the motive for the fire remained unclear, Sillen urged vigilance. 

“It’s just a responsibility right now of our community, of LGBTQ (people) in our city, in any city, to be there for each other, to be vigilant, to be supportive,” they said. 

Lhota faces a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years behind bars if convicted. He could face up to 40 years of imprisonment. United States Attorney Breon Peace previously said his office would vigorously prosecute the case.

“As alleged, Lhota deliberately set fire to a bar and nightclub patronized by members of the LGBTQ+ community, seriously injuring two of its employees, and efndangering all present including the tenants of the building as well as the first responders who battled the blaze for approximately one hour,” Peace said. “The victims, and all LGBTQ+ New Yorkers, should be able to enjoy their nights out in peace and without fear of such a dangerous attack.”

Those LGBTQ+ New Yorkers and other customers will still need to wait a while to visit Rash, but Sillen said they’re working as fast as possible. They wish they could be open now.

“We can’t wait to see you in person again,” Sillen said.

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