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Fires set at 3 occupied dwellings

Residents of Tampa Heights are unnerved by the fires, which were set as they slept. Other recent fires have been set in vacant buildings.

By RICHARD DANIELSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2000


TAMPA -- An arsonist tried to torch three Tampa Heights houses while residents slept inside early Thursday, prompting an urgent plea for help by Tampa Fire Rescue officials.

"We've had fires certainly in this neighborhood before, and most of the time those have been vacant houses," fire Capt. Bill Wade said. "Last night, somebody changed the game plan. . . . They're putting families at risk here."

All three fires were set in the crawl spaces under the homes. Two were extinguished with garden hoses, but flames spread into an interior wall and did more than $50,000 in damage to a 4-year-old home on E Ross Avenue. The homeowner, who firefighters said was awakened by her smoke detector, declined to be interviewed.

The owners of the two other homes said they were disturbed by the attacks.

"Fortunately, we don't have to make any repairs, but it's real frightening to look under your house at 2 o'clock in the morning and see smoke and flames coming out," social worker Ray Palmer said.

Palmer, 52, said he was lucky the blaze was set under his new addition and not under the main part of the 98-year-old, pink and white house, which has won a historic preservation award. The addition, he said, was built with more fire-resistant materials than the original home.

Two blocks away, retired construction supervisor Charlie Turner said a tenant who rents a small apartment from him smelled smoke and called him. He called 911, only to be told at first that the fire was down the street. He put out the flames before the engine arrived. He said firefighters later pulled out a green T-shirt that had been stuffed under the floor of his house and set aflame.

"We caught this one before it got too bad," Turner said. "I guess some human has turned into a beast, a monster, something."

Firefighters responded to the first fire, on Ross Avenue, at 1:42 a.m. and brought it under control in about 30 minutes.

The second fire was set half an hour later at Palmer's home, 2302 N Morgan St., and the third fire occurred five minutes later at Turner's house, 402 E Amelia Ave.

Fire officials said they think the same person set all three, although that arsonist might not be responsible for more than two dozen other suspicious fires in Tampa Heights since last June. Saturday night, someone set three fires, two at vacant houses and one to a pile of trash.

Anyone with information can call a new arson hotline at (813) 690-1879. Officials are offering up to $5,000 for information leading to the identification and conviction of the arsonist.

As of Thursday, however, officials said they had very little to work with. "We're hampered by the lack of any good physical evidence left behind, and there have been few eyewitnesses," Assistant Fire Marshal Todd Spear said. "We're basically working very circumstantially."

As police and firefighters went door to door handing out fliers Thursday, residents said the previous fires were bad, but having someone target occupied houses is even worse.

"It was infuriating while it was vacant houses," said Jo Gaston, who lives across the street from Palmer. "Now it's frightening."

Tampa Heights was the city's first suburb when it was developed at the turn of the century, and after decades of decline is now a neighborhood on the mend. A wave of new homeowners, some young professionals, has bought and restored older homes. But the neighborhood remains very much in transition, with pockets of poverty, scattered vacant or condemned houses and a near-constant flow of strangers and vagrants passing through the area.

As a result, while fire officials asked residents to report anything suspicious, Gaston said what might be suspicious somewhere else is commonplace in Tampa Heights.

"We have people wandering up and down the streets all the time, all night" she said.

Tampa Fire Rescue officials told about 40 members of the Tampa Heights Civic Association on Thursday night that they will be in the neighborhood for at least several nights stopping and questioning people passing through.

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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