If not for a former Israeli paratrooper, one of Oakland's few upscale shopping districts might have gone up in flames in the early morning hours of November 21, 2001.
Paul Berman was driving home with his wife down tony Piedmont Avenue shortly after 1 a.m. when he noticed something out of the ordinary at Fentons Creamery and Restaurant.
Berman had often seen the restaurant's employees working late at night. Workers routinely hosed out the building after closing, flushing gallons of melted ice cream and gobs of kitchen grease down the storm drains. "They would pressure-wash two to three nights a week -- washing the waste onto the parking lot, down the drain, and into the creek," he said. "The milky residue would be everywhere. Basically, everything that fell on the floor would be washed out onto the parking lot." But that night's activities looked strange to Berman.
A U-Haul truck was backed up to the loading dock at the rear of the beloved ice-cream parlor. Berman, who has lived near Fentons for thirteen years, knew that most deliveries took place during the day. Remembering that a similar incident on the avenue had turned out to be a robbery, the watchful neighbor called the Oakland police.
Police dispatched a patrol car, and when officers saw the U-Haul they thought it was just a routine case of workers moving equipment. Two employees were slowly wheeling a jukebox onto the truck. Just in case, however, the officers decided to circle the block. On their return trip they saw smoke.
The officers immediately called for assistance. Firefighters extinguished the blaze before it completely destroyed Fentons, but the restaurant's interior was severely damaged by smoke and flames. Police arrested three creamery employees with no prior criminal records; all three eventually admitted their involvement in the arson and robbery. The two adults -- the restaurant's day and night supervisors -- were sent to prison, and the minor spent two months in juvenile hall. One of the adults is still behind bars and faces possible deportation; the other apparently returned to Mexico after being paroled.
During the nineteen months it was closed, the already-popular Fentons became a cause célèbre. The famed creamery basked in favorable media coverage, which helped fuel a groundswell of community support from appreciative customers. Owner Scott Whidden received waves of sympathetic letters and e-mails, along with a multimillion-dollar insurance payout that allowed him and his landlord to transform Fentons into the larger, classier ice-cream palace it is today. The Express dubbed it the "Best Culinary Comeback" of 2003.
But behind the famous Black and Tan sundaes and the lines of smiling customers snaking out the door into the parking lot lies a darker tale of smothering debt, implausible motives, insurance payments, and a police investigation that left key questions unanswered. Underlying the entire mystery is one former employee's allegation that Whidden indirectly encouraged him to torch the business -- a charge never pursued by police or prosecutors.
Whidden vehemently denies the suggestion that he had anything to do with the fire that nearly destroyed his creamery. He called the assertion "outrageous" and claimed in an interview that the blaze devastated him financially, calling it "a very, very tragic event ... possibly the worst thing that could have happened." In fact, his psychologist wrote in March that Whidden suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the prolonged rebuilding process.
Yet a very different picture emerges from interviews with former employees and inspection of public documents. Like a wildfire that clears dead underbrush but spares the trees above it, the blaze that nearly destroyed Fentons may actually have saved it.
At first blush, Gregory Scott Whidden, a 43-year-old Montclair resident with dark curly hair and a cherubic face, comes across as a calm, fun-loving guy who gets his kicks serving ice cream to children and seniors. Whidden seems a perfect fit as the owner of a local business with an American-as-apple-pie reputation. He is an unabashed Oakland booster who has helped raise money for Children's Hospital and crafted a fifty-foot-long sundae for Children's Fairyland. But former employees, legal opponents, business acquaintances, and several neighbors say Whidden's aw-shucks-I'm-just-an-ice-cream-maker persona is nothing but a front.
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