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Return of man who set fires upsets neighbors

By AMY HERDY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2002

TAMPA -- After his wife and kids left him, Roberto Tavaliccio set fires to relieve his stress.

While no one was injured in the dozen blazes he started near his River Heights home two years ago, residents in his neighborhood off Columbus Drive were consumed with fear.

Tavaliccio was ordered to a state psychiatric hospital in June 2001, but his sentence was overturned. Now he's back in his old neighborhood.

And residents are frightened again.

They say he wanders the area, a violation of his community control. They intend to plead their case before a judge Monday. Meanwhile, the situation frustrates the arson investigator who arrested Tavaliccio in December 2000.

"He hasn't received any kind of rehabilitation," said Tampa Fire Marshal's Office investigator Al Alcala, who noted that Tavaliccio has taken in seven boarders, all convicted felons, since his return to his home at 1009 W Columbus Drive.

"He's not getting any kind of counseling or supervision," Alcala said. "He's just a ticking bomb waiting to explode."

Helen Katrnak, who lives behind Tavaliccio on Riverside Drive, lost a pool house and fence in a fire Tavaliccio set that caused more than $50,000 in damage.

"I'm out of my mind with worry," said Katrnak, 38, who can vividly recall how that Halloween night fire melted the paint off the rear of her home and caught her neighbor's citrus trees and eaves on fire.

"He was sentenced to five years in a mental health facility and the bottom line is, this man has never gotten help," said Katrnak, a general manager of a swimwear company. "I'm absolutely scared to death. I'm afraid to sleep at night."

Tavaliccio avoided psychiatric treatment on a technicality. Because he was ruled competent to stand trial for setting the fires, he could not be sentenced to a mental health facility despite his admission of guilt.

Tavaliccio said he only leaves his home to use a pay phone or to walk to the Salvation Army for meals or to St. Joseph's Hospital for the dressing of a spider bite.

He was supposed to live for six months at the Salvation Army residential treatment facility beginning in September, he said, but was asked to leave within three weeks because the spider bite he received there became infected and the wound violated the facility's health code restrictions.

What does he do now to deal with anger and frustration?

"I've been dealing with it day by day," he said, through prayer and by talking to friends. He does not need counseling, he said. "I'm keeping my emotions under control."

That does little to console his neighbors, who think Tavaliccio was abandoned by the system and that stress could trigger his former behavior.

"He has no job, no income, no car and he's under house arrest," said Carlos Rivera, 26, who lives next door to Tavaliccio.

So Rivera watches.

"I'm on top of it every day to make sure he doesn't set any more fires."

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Amy Herdy can be reached at 226-3386 or

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