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    Dozens of cars torched on streets around city

    Twenty-eight cars have been set afire since mid June, including seven that burned Thursday and Friday.

    By MONIQUE FIELDS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 6, 2002

    ST. PETERSBURG -- Fred Davis and his girlfriend Eileen Cox were awakened at 2:30 a.m. Friday by St. Petersburg police officers. They wanted the couple to come downstairs.

    The couple's white 1982 Ford Fairmont and brown 1986 Oldsmobile had been burned beyond recognition. The dashboards had all but melted away. The insides had been charred down to the metal. All that survived were the cars' license plates.

    "I couldn't believe what our cars looked like," Davis said.

    Davis and Cox were the latest victims of an odd string of crimes in St. Petersburg. Twenty-eight cars have been set ablaze since mid June, including seven on Thursday and Friday.

    The first 21 arsons involved vehicles -- 12 of them older-model Dodge Caravans -- stolen in west and northwest St. Petersburg and set afire and left for scrap in southwest St. Petersburg.

    Unlike the previous fires, the latest arsons were committed in front of the car owners' homes and apartments. All of the most recent cars were manufactured in or before 1993.

    "We don't know if it's a Fourth of July prank or if it was a similar group that did the other cars," said St. Petersburg police spokesman George Kajtsa.

    Almost every case Thursday and Friday was a little different.

    A St. Petersburg police officer smelled smoke, tracked down the smell and found a 1986 Cadillac at 4:01 a.m. Thursday. He peered inside the car, parked in the 4100 block of 12th Avenue S, and saw that it was no longer on fire but the inside had been damaged.

    A St. Petersburg man was driving home in his 1988 Plymouth minivan about 1:30 a.m. Friday when it broke down in the 2300 block of 37th Street N. After he left to get assistance, a woman reported that it was on fire.

    A 1985 Chevrolet Caprice was torched in the 2800 block of 4th Avenue N, Friday at 2 a.m. Just 90 minutes later, a burning 1993 Ford Escort was discovered at 3:30 a.m. on 39th Circle S.

    The seventh vehicle, a 1990 Ford F-150 pickup, was found in the 5200 block of 38th Street S at 3:35 a.m. Friday. A newspaper carrier saw the truck engulfed in flames and dialed 911.

    Police continue to collect evidence, but Kajtsa said they don't yet know what was used to start the fires.

    For motorists, police offered this advice:

    "The best thing that we encourage people to do is lock their vehicles, No. 1," Kajtsa said. "No. 2, if you have a garage, put the car in the garage."

    By Friday afternoon, Davis had called his insurance company and filed a claim.

    The car had been parked on a well-lighted street, with its doors and windows locked. Davis wasn't sure there was anything else he could have done.

    "If they're aiming to do something destructive, they're going to do it," he said.

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