On December 22, 2022, Eoles “Deuce” Whitaker II, the man believed to have intentionally started the Winter Street Studio fire, died of suicide by jumping out of his high-rise downtown Houston apartment as police attempted to arrest him.
The fire was started in artist Jack Potts’ Bohemian Photography studio, which suffered the most damage of the nearly 100 spaces that were affected. Early on, Mr. Potts suspected Mr. Whitaker, his friend who he previously worked with, of stealing his photography equipment and setting the fire. The two recently had a disagreement over $1,000, and Mr. Whitaker lost his job two months ago and may have been facing financial difficulties.
The Houston Fire Department confirmed that Mr. Whitaker was identified via surveillance video from Winter Street, and was also seen on video at his residence, The Rice Apartments, carrying some of Mr. Potts’ equipment. Investigators obtained an arrest warrant, but before they entered his apartment, Mr. Whitaker jumped from his 17th-floor window.
Mr. Whitaker was an artist, a civil servant, and community advocate. According to his LinkedIn page, over the past decade he has held several positions, including Director of Intergovernmental Relations through the Texas House of Representatives, adjunct professor at both Texas Southern University and Houston Community College, and General Manager for the 5 Corners Improvement District, an organization that works to enhance the well-being of the Five Corners District located in southern Houston. Additionally, Mr. Whitaker was the founding president and CEO for Whitaker Alliance Group, a management consulting and investment management firm.
Mr. Potts told KHOU, Houston’s CBS affiliate, “I still would consider [Mr. Whitaker] a friend. To reach a point… where that’s justifiable, he had to be hurting pretty bad.”
Separately, Mr. Potts told Houston’s Eyewitness News, “As soon as I realized it was him, I can say this honestly, I was never even mad at him. It immediately went to the pain he had to be in… I’m sure he had no idea what was going to happen… the impact, the hundreds of artists that were affected one way or another.” After the events around the fire and Mr. Whitaker’s suicide, Mr. Potts is urging anyone who is depressed or struggling to reach out and ask for help.
Estimates of the damage and loss Mr. Potts has faced range from $250,000 to $500,000. Friends have launched a GoFundMe campaign to support Mr. Potts’ recovery, and the Houston Arts Alliance (HAA), through its Emergency Relief Fund, is still providing stipends to Winter Street Studio artists affected by the fire. Artists seeking relief can apply for emergency funds, and people wishing to donate can do so at HAA’s website.
Currently, the whole Winter Street Studio building is closed, though developer John Deal anticipates two-thirds of the building will be ready for artists to return in February. The other part of the building, which suffered the most damage, will require some structural repairs, and nearly half of the studios in this space will be completely rebuilt. The hope is to have all work completed in about six months.