NJ bowling lanes manager charged after fire destroys rival alley, a 50-year-old institution

By Geoff Mulvihill, AP
Thursday, January 21, 2010

NJ bowling manager charged after rival lanes burn

VINELAND, N.J. — Hardcore bowlers don’t just call their main alley their lanes — it’s their house.

A beloved house burned down last week after 50 years on the edge of Vineland, a city in a part of New Jersey far from the historical home of the mob and the teeming chaos of the shore, a place where the state nickname, the Garden State, seems apt.

Sadness turned to anger Wednesday, when authorities announced that the manager of a rival bowling alley, the only other one in Cumberland County, had been charged with arson in the destruction of Loyle Lanes.

Steven Smink, the lessee-manager of Pike Lanes Family Fun Center in Deerfield, hired another man, Felix Manzano, 21, and a teenager to torch Loyle Lanes, police said.

Smink, a 47-year-old former Pennsylvania warrant officer, essentially an independent contractor who does many of the warrant-serving functions that sheriffs officers in other states do, brought big ambitions when he took over Pike Lanes in 2007.

The Loyles, the family behind Loyle Lanes, said they’d never met Smink but had heard he boasted he’d put them out of business in two years — even though the alleys had coexisted peacefully for decades in the sandy-soiled part of deep southern Jersey, where the towns are small, the main streets are wide and agriculture has always been one of the main industries.

Charles Loyle, who owns the alley with his brother but has handed operations over to his two sons, said he was stunned by the announcement of the charges.

“We just can’t comprehend a youngster of 21 years old and a juvenile of 17 being talked into committing an act like this against us,” he said.

The fire, discovered after 2 a.m. on Jan. 11, moved so fast that Loyle suspected arson right away as he watched from a police car.

Almost immediately, the building’s roof and a section of the back wall were gone. The sign on the front was blown out. Bowling pins and balls melted, as did almost everything else inside.

The bowling alley’s office, with legal documents and financial records, was the only part not ruined.

Loyle’s family brought out charred remains of lockers and their contents for some of their regular bowlers; they were parked along the fence put up around the fire site.

Police said the blaze began on the roof but gave no other details about how they identified the suspects or how the fire was set — or why.

The three suspects, all from Philadelphia, face charges of aggravated arson, aggravated arson for hire and conspiracy to commit arson. If convicted on all counts, they each could be sentenced to up to 50 years in state prison.

Smink and Manzano were being held in Philadelphia, where they were arrested, on $300,000 bail. The teen, whose name has not been made public, was released to his mother.

Cumberland County prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae wouldn’t say whether lawyers for any of the defendants had come forward.

At Smink’s home, a woman who answered the phone said, “I know nothing about it,” and hung up.

Manzano’s father, also named Felix Manzano, said he didn’t think his son, an electrician, would do anything like burn down a bowling alley.

“He’s stupid, but he’s not that stupid,” the elder Manzano said.

At Pike Lanes, where there were just a few bowlers on Wednesday morning, an employee locked the door to keep reporters out.

Meanwhile, Pike owner Diana Campani Sorelle, who leases the operations to Smink, told The News of Cumberland County she would like to regain control of it. She said her father, who founded it, and the Loyle family were friends.

The Loyle family says it wants to rebuild its alley, which got a $400,000 upgrade last year.

Bowlers have remained loyal since the fire, stopping by the lanes and milling about the parking lot.

“It’s a second home for all of us, really,” said John Greco, whose wife, Liz, wore his jacket with “300″ embroidered on it in honor of a perfect game he rolled.

Loyle regulars say Pike Lanes, just a 15-minute drive away, has been slipping. Greco said heating problems have left bowlers playing with their coats on. The state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control said the lanes’ liquor license was put on inactive status in July, but it wouldn’t disclose the reason.

For now, close to two dozen people are out of work as the charred remains of the Loyle building stand along a main road of businesses. A state men’s league championship scheduled to be held there in March will need to find a new house.

And scores of bowlers are searching for a new place to play.

Wednesday, John and Leanore Schlueter were outside Pike Lanes. When he retired from his computer technician job recently, they decided to take up bowling again after several years away from the game. The new ball she ordered at Loyle was a casualty of the fire.

And he wasn’t sure how he might resume his old hobby.

“It’s a scary thing that someone would do something that destructive,” he said. “I’m lost for a place to bowl.”

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