Suspect is a local homeless man reported to be a former bartender
By Neal Putnam
A judge set bail at $150,000 on Oct. 24 for a man suspected of arson at Gossip Grill that caused $7,000 in damages to the LGBTQ establishment on University Avenue.
A former employee of Urban MO’s was arrested Oct. 20, not far from the scene. The arson is not believed to be a hate crime, said Gossip Grill owner Moe Girton.
Girton told KPBS she believed the fire was set as “an action from a person living on the streets and experiencing a mental health crisis.”
The fire department estimated the $7,000 in damages were mostly to the awnings, a large rainbow flag and electrical equipment on the two front patios.
“There was no structural damage to the actual building,” Girton told KPBS.
“We have it all on video. We have one patio of him using an accelerant and then lighting it on fire, and another camera has him walking away giggling and smiling.”
The fire was set around 12:30 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 20, after the bar had already closed for the previous Thursday evening. Gossip Grill reopened later that Friday as usual.
“We’re just grateful for the fire department getting here quickly and nobody was hurt,” said Girton to KPBS. “And the damage is, it’s manageable, you know.”
Police arrested Ryan Scott Habrel, 38, around 1:45 p.m. Friday, shortly after KGTV (Channel 10) showed up to interview Girton. The channel’s TV camera captured the arrest.
Habrel pleaded not guilty to arson and possession of arson materials when he appeared via video from jail before San Diego Superior Court Judge Theodore Weathers.
Weathers ordered Habrel to stay 100 yards away from all businesses associated with Girton, who was in the audience but did not speak, in case Habrel happens to post bond.
Those businesses include “the conglomerate of MO’s Universe: Urban MO’s, Gossip Grill, InsideOUT, Hillcrest Brewing Company, Baja Betty’s, and Barrel & Board,” said District Attorney spokesperson Tanya Sierra.
Sierra said Judge Weathers “issued a criminal protective order for the owner of the establishment and the defendant was ordered to stay away from all of the other establishments.”
The prosecutor and defense attorney, who was beside Habrel in jail, did not discuss the facts of the case in court.
Habrel currently has another case of felony vandalism and presenting false identification to police. He had been free on a $10,000 bond on that case, but that bail amount is added to the $150,000 on the new case, so his total bail figure is now $160,000.
On Oct. 25, his preliminary hearing was reset from Nov. 6 to Nov. 21, but the latter date is just two days before Thanksgiving, so they have since changed the date again to Dec. 6.
Habrel remains in the George Bailey Detention Facility.
The incident at Gossip Grill has been widely reported in all LGBTQ media. To read LGBTQ San Diego County News’ exclusive breaking news report about the fire, visit https://lgbtqsd.news/suspect-identified-in-early-morning-gossip-grill-arson-fire/.
–Neal Putnam is a local crime reporter. You can reach him at [email protected].
Editor’s Note: “MO’s Universe” is only a nickname and was never the name of a conglomerated business group. All the above mentioned restaurants are independently owned and operated. Moe Girton is not an owner, a manager, or shareholder of Urban MO’s.