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August 22, 2014

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Arson fire turns businessman’s dreams to nightmare

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Sam Morris

Owner Andrew Devitt talks about the arson-caused fire at Sport Social Wednesday, April 17, 2013.

Autism Arson

Evidence of arson is seen at the Sport Social facility, Wednesday, April 17, 2013. Launch slideshow »

When Andrew Devitt woke up on Monday, he noticed something odd — his phone was filled with voicemails from his business’ neighbors and alarm company.

As he shook off the grogginess, he listened with confusion. Someone had broken into his startup company, Sport-Social, where he taught autistic children social skills through sports and arts, and set it on fire.

Set it on fire. The words didn’t register. They sounded more like an elaborate nightmare than reality to Devitt. But when he arrived at the business, a Clark County Fire truck was waiting outside, a pool of muddy water about 4 inches deep sloshed around inside.

Neither prepared him for what a closer inspection revealed.

Seven separate fires had charred the walls and floor. The children’s prize center was destroyed and his activity stations — skate ramps, a stage, board games — were rusted or warped. The hours he and others spent, the money he invested to make his dream business a reality, were destroyed a year after the center was opened.

For the first time since Devitt could remember, he cried.

“It was just devastating. I’ve never felt like that in my life,” Devitt said. “We just finished everything. The idea of starting over — not even the value of everything, just the fact of we have to start over (is unimaginable).”

Click to enlarge photo

Samuel Powers

According to a Clark County Fire arrest report, Samuel Powers, 24, broke into the facility at around 5:30 a.m. and lit the fires. Metro Police caught Powers leaving the broken front door with a five-gallon fuel container and second-degree burns on his hand.

Powers worked as a part-time editor with Lovaas Center for Behavioral Intervention, a facility that collaborates with Sport-Social. His actions have left Devitt and others in the autism community reeling.

“He was rogue,” said Lovaas Center owner Erik Lovaas. “When he worked with us, he was a good employee. … Everyone here is shocked. It’s a tragedy for everyone in the community.”

Two days after the incident, cleanup is only beginning. There is a pile of charred lost-and-found sweatshirts and backpacks left over from a spring camp. Blackened walls show streaks of water damage.

In the main room — which resembles a giant playground — the damaged televisions, pool table, posters and board games are piled in a corner. Air blowers are strewn across the floor drying the walls, their hum replacing the usual din of children at play.

Clark County Fire investigators estimate the fire caused about $50,000 in damage, but the insurance company is only offering $25,000. Devitt sounds tired every time he discusses the damage.

“There’s not too much (damaged), but $25,000 goes quick when you have $1,000 worth of board games,” Devitt said.

Devitt and his staff have spent every waking hour trying to clean up the place.

“We’ve been here nonstop, not only to help with cleanup, but for support too,” said Alison Correales, an instructor at Sport-Social.

Devitt describes Sport-Social, 7055 Windy St., near the intersection of Warm Springs Road and Las Vegas Boulevard, as his baby. He began it with a $7,500 loan that he matched with his own savings. He gave up hobbies and friends, focusing solely on the company. For nearly three years, every profit his business made was saved to expand his program to the warehouse he’s at now.

Sport-Social currently serves about 225 children with autism or special needs, teaching them social skills through sports and arts. The idea, Devitt said, is that as the children become confident in a sport or activity, they’re more likely to be social.

Children can earn “Cool Friend” tickets for saying terms like “dude” or “sick” or helping out a friend, and they can redeem the tickets for prizes. The staff reinforces skills such as talking with peers, taking turns or asking for help.

This fire has jeopardized everything Devitt has worked for.

“I don’t know how long we’re going to be out for, but any interruption results in a setback,” Devitt said. “My biggest worry is, ‘Are we going to be able to recover?”

Still, Devitt said he and his staff have been buoyed by donations and help from concerned residents and families the business has helped. So far people have donated $3,000 to their cause, he said.

“I don’t know exactly what we need, but it seems the community is behind us,” Devitt said. “When I first walked in the door, it was, ‘Are we going to be able to recover from this? … Without telling everybody and getting support from everybody whether monetary or overall support, I don’t think we’d be where we are, on track to open up.”

Devitt has set a goal to reopen within the month. He knows it’ll be an uphill battle for Sport-Social to be fully functional, but he refuses to let the actions of one man destroy his dream.

Those interested in donating can visit lasvegasautism.com and click the donate button.

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  1. Have there been any further findings about what motivated Samuel Powers to do this?