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Hwy. 12 gas station reopens after blast caused by thieves

  • Paul Caracciolo fills up his car at the Valero gas station in the Valley of the Moon Plaza, in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, December 24, 2013. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

A thoroughly remodeled Valero gas station on Highway 12 at Melita Road in east Santa Rosa won customer approval for opening two years after an explosion and fire shuttered its predecessor.

“It's pretty cool,” said Craig Jahnke, a Santa Rosa contractor, gassing up his GMC pickup this week on the way home from work.

“I was bummed out when the guy set it on fire,” said Jahnke, who commutes to jobs in the Valley of the Moon.

Before dawn on the day before Thanksgiving, 2011, three men stealing gasoline from a pump at the old Union 76 station ignited a powerful blast and fire that destroyed their van and a fuel island, pump and canopy at the station.

The explosion blew open the van's back doors and woke up several neighbors at 3:55 a.m. Flames quickly spread to the pump and canopy and also singed the face and head of a man seen on a surveillance video standing next to the van.

The man, later identified as Lance B. Smith was found walking along Highway 12 away from the gas station.

Smith, now 46, who lives in Santa Rosa and Cottonwood, Ariz., was convicted of vandalism in January and sentenced to 349 days in county jail, which he had already served following his arrest, the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office said.

“They were not rocket scientists,” said Nick Ahmadi of Santa Rosa, owner of the newly named Valley of the Moon Plaza that includes the Valero station, a 7—Eleven store and several other businesses in an adjacent building in matching earth tones.

The video showed a man in the van's passenger seat lighting a cigarette, which evidently ignited vapors from the gasoline the men had pumped into two containers inside the van, he said.

Ahmadi and his brothers, who own a fuel marketing business and gas stations in Santa Rosa, Marin County and San Francisco, bought the 2.7-acre property on New Year's Eve of 2012.

The previous owners abandoned the gas station and continued to operate a Fast and Easy Mart, where business was slow, a clerk said two weeks after the fire.

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