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Whitestone man charged in diner fire

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A Whitestone man was charged with arson Friday for allegedly breaking into the Lollipops Diner to steal cigarettes and then starting a fire that gutted the popular restaurant to conceal the burglary, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said.

Authorities said 42−year−old Michael Trantel was arrested last Thursday morning at his 15−29 159th St. home and was subsequently arraigned on charges of arson, reckless endangerment, criminal mischief, burglary and larceny at Queens Criminal Court in Kew Gardens.

“The defendant is charged with setting a fire that destroyed a popular business and caused extensive damage to neighboring stores,” Brown said. “The fire could easily have caused serious injuries or death to firefighters charged with fighting the blaze or any people who may have been inside or around the building.”

Brown said at about 1 a.m. on Nov. 2, Trantel allegedly broke through the front window of the diner and stole a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, which he then used to light a bag of Halloween candy before he left.

Brown said the bag ignited a fire that tore through the diner, which has been an institution in the Whitestone Shopping Center for more than 30 years, completely destroying it. It quickly spread to seven other businesses and two vacant storefronts, causing severe damage to about one−third of the shopping center.

“For a crime so often noted as victimless, this is a perfect example of how wrong that is. Just ask the affected shop owners,” said Delano Reid, acting special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, New York Field Division.

The DA said surveillance video from the night of the fire allegedly shows Trantel asking a security guard for a cigarette. The guard declined, according to Brown, and the video allegedly then shows Trantel breaking into the diner.

Trantel was ordered to be held without bail at his Friday morning arraignment and faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted, according to the DA.

No one was injured in the blaze, but regular patrons of Lollipops Diner were shocked and saddened to find their lunchtime haunt charred and boarded up immediately after the fire.

“I’m shocked,” said Marty Cholewa, a regular customer for decades who went to the diner to get lunch. “It’s so sad. It’s a great diner. The irony of it all is the only one that’s totally knocked out is [Lollipops]. Such a shame. The owner’s such a nice guy.”

The owners could not be reached for comment.

In addition to Lollipops, a liquor store, a General Nutrition Center, NY Print Center, an Astoria Federal Savings bank, a Chase bank and a Chinese restaurant called King’s Chef also sustained damage in the blaze.

Workers at the NY Print Center and King’s Chef said they were fortunate only to sustain smoke and water damage in the fire and believed thick walls dividing each of the stores may have spared them more devastating damage.

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e−mail at Sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 138.

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