LEROY TOWNSHIP, Ohio – When Billy Welker called 911 in the early morning hours of April 6 to report his house in Leroy Township was on fire, he says he had no idea that he might be the target of a hate crime.
Firefighters responding to the blaze quickly concluded it was an act of arson.
“Right away when we walked in, we had a strong odor of gasoline, and in that part of the house, there should not have been gasoline, it was a living area,” Leroy Township Fire Chief Michael Shoff said.
Investigators also discovered that a gay slur has been spray painted on the wall of the basement.
Billy Welker says that’s when he came to the conclusion that he had been targeted because he is the owner of All Axs, a gay bar that recently opened in downtown Willoughby.
“I could not believe it, we’ve had a couple smaller incidents here because of the nature of it being a LGBT bar,” said Welker. “And we’ve had a great response from the community and everything on that, but after that fire, I could not believe it.”
Welker says threatening phone calls have been made to his bar and someone placed derogatory flyers outside the business, but he says the act of arson at his home has taken the hate to a new level.
“Somebody really does not like this bar being in Willoughby. It`s 2019, it`s like every other bar but we cater to everybody, all are welcome.”
Investigators are now checking cameras in the area surrounding the house, to see if surveillance video might help identify the arsonist.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office is offering a $5000 reward for information leading to an arrest, and Billy Welker’s family has offered to match that reward.