ATF leaves site of fatal fire; owner says he’s making plans to demolish what remains of building

The ATF National Response Team has cleared the scene of the downtown apartment building destroyed by a July 7 fire in Sterling. Demolition will need to be handled by the owner himself.

STERLING – The ATF National Response Team cleared the scene of the downtown apartment building destroyed by a July 7 fire that also took the life of a tenant and is back in the hands of its owner, Mihail “Mike” Mihalios, who must handle the demolition himself.

“The property has been released back to the property owner,” City Manager Scott Shumard said in an email Tuesday to Sauk Valley Media. “Private insurance is conducting their own investigation. It is up to the property owner and his insurance to follow up with the demolition.”

Mihalios said Tuesday that he has an appointment with his insurance adjuster Wednesday to discuss what must be done.

The city also has filed a claim against Mihalios’ insurance company, to ensure that the unstable shell at 406/408 E. Third St. will come down. No deadline for demolition was set, Shumard said in the email.

“His insurance company is entitled reasonable time to investigate,” he said.

East Third/state Route 2 from First to Fifth avenues was reopened Friday, but one lane only is open in the 400 block, according to the release. It will remain that way “until debris is removed and the remaining structure is no longer a danger to pedestrians or traffic in the north lane,” Shumard said.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the lead investigator on the cause of the apartment building fire, finished its onsite investigation Friday, Shumard said in a subsequent news release.

“Evidence collected at the scene is currently undergoing analysis in an effort to determine the cause and origin,” he said in the release. “Members of the Sterling Police Department, Illinois State Fire Marshal and ATF Fire Investigator Services continue their investigation, which includes interviewing witnesses as well as collecting and analyzing additional information. There is no time frame for the investigation, as it remains open and ongoing.”

The city received no preliminary report on a possible cause, Shumard said.

The ATF will release its findings to the fire and police departments, and then the city will make that information public, Shumard said.

He has made it clear that the city asked for assistance from the ATF team solely because of the expertise of its certified fire investigators, who are special agents with highly specialized training who have access to the latest in investigative technology.

“ATF’s presence has nothing to do with an explosion,” Shumard has said.

The city is working with Mihalios, 71, of Chicago, and with Kurt & Brian Properties LLC, owners of the building due west, at 302 Fourth Ave., where two tenants were evacuated during the fire.

A third tenant was not at home at the time, Brian Carradus said in a email.

The Kurt & Brian property management office also is in the building, said Carradus, whose partner is Kurt Studnicki.

Their insurance company was waiting for the ATF to finish gathering evidence to determine the extent of the damages, he said, and they are working with the city to be allowed to get in to get some of their tenants’ items.

For now, all he knows is there is some water damage to the building and the power is knocked out, Carradus said.

Mihalios, sounding tired and distressed in a phone call Tuesday, repeated his belief that the fire was deliberately set.

“It is something miserable,” Mihalios, for whom English is a second language, said last week. “It was not like an accident. It was like something happened there, because an accident is an accident. This, I can’t understand what is going on over there.”

The fatal fire began about 2:25 a.m. in the three-story commercial and apartment building, which Mihalios has owned since 2005. It had eight apartments and two commercial spaces.

The building had working smoke alarms, and he kept both the front and rear entrances cleared and unlocked, so authorities could enter if needed, said Mihalios, who also owns the two-story building to the east, 412/414 E. Third St., which has a laundromat, closed for now, but no tenants at the moment.

Services were held Tuesday afternoon for Juan Antonio “Tony” Anaya, 62, who died in the fire, along with Bella, a German Shepherd he often cared for for friends.

His remains were recovered July 11. An official cause of death is pending final autopsy results, which will take about eight weeks, Whiteside County Coroner Joe McDonald said.

Anaya was a professional painter and handyman who worked at Dana Corp. He lived in the building, alone, for about seven months.

Go to to read his obituary and post condolences.

Twelve other residents, not all of whom were home when the fire broke out, were displaced.

Kimberly Johnson, 56, who jumped from the third-floor apartment she shared with her son, Tim Fielding, remains in critical condition at OSF St. Anthony Medical Center in Rockford, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Equipment is being removed by Sterling firefighters Thursday, July 13, 2023 from the scene of an apartment building fire that happened last week.
Roads near the Sterling downtown apartment fire as still blocked as investigation and cleanup progresses Thursday, July 13, 2023.
Kathleen Schultz

Kathleen A. Schultz

Kathleen Schultz is a Sterling native with 40 years of reporting and editing experience in Arizona, California, Montana and Illinois.