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Arsonist strikes 3 more homes

Tampa fire officials believe the arsonist is the same person who set three similar fires nearby April 27.

By RICHARD DANIELSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2000


TAMPA -- Every other Friday night, Tampa Heights residents gather for a "Porch Party." The old guard and the new professionals mingle, eat, drink and gossip about goings-on.

"Used to, we'd talk about housework or family," said Joe Seitz, who renovated an old home on N Morgan Street seven years ago. "Lately, all we talk about is the arsonist."

For the second time in less than a week, an arsonist set fire to three houses in Tampa Heights early Wednesday, forcing residents to flee as flames nearly destroyed one of the homes.

No one was hurt, but Calvin Boston, 44, and Moses Clark, 50, escaped from their W Amelia Avenue home only because a neighbor lost power as she was getting ready for work at 4:30 a.m. She looked outside and beat on their front door after seeing the flames. The fire had been set under the rear of the house and did $65,000 in damage before being put out.

Tampa Fire Rescue officials believe the arsonist is the same person who set three similar fires nearby April 27 and said they were more concerned than ever that someone will be killed if the fires continue.

"We've had a serial arsonist before, but nothing like this," said Al Alcala, a Tampa fire investigator since 1985. "This is getting out of hand."

Typically, the arsonist targets homes raised off the ground, knocking out any latticework to crawl underneath. George and Marie Brown have lived in their E Amelia Avenue home for 35 years, and are glad they have a concrete foundation and three very large dogs to protect them. But in this tight-knit neighborhood, they fear for everyone else.

"We're concerned about others who don't have what we have," George Brown said. "They're the ones who are threatened."

For the past five years, the entire city has averaged about 200 arsons a year. Since June, however, the Tampa Heights area alone has had 31 arsons or suspicious fires, most of them in vacant houses.

In response, Mayor Dick Greco said the city will continue to put extra undercover officers and uniformed patrols in Tampa Heights. The Tampa Fire Marshal's Office is working with the state fire marshal to put investigators in the neighborhood around the clock, Tampa fire Capt. Bill Wade said.

"The next step is more enforcement, more people," Greco said. "They picked up (a possible suspect) a couple, three days ago, but it didn't pan out."

Greco was reluctant to provide details, but he confirmed that the individual was picked up under the state's Baker Act, which authorities can use to hold a mentally ill person believed to be a danger to himself or others. That person is no longer in custody. Greco would not comment further.

Tampa Fire Rescue investigators have noted that in the most recent fires, all five occupied houses were home to black residents, but they have not concluded that the fires are racially motivated.

"That's something that we'll look at down the line when we catch the culprit," Alcala said. Investigators have offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the identification and conviction of the individuals involved in the fires. Anyone with information can call the city's arson hotline at (813) 690-1879. Fire investigators usually find that arson fires are set for one of a few reasons, including insurance fraud, revenge or the concealment of evidence of another crime.

In this case, Alcala said he believes authorities are probably dealing with "a pyromaniac ... a loner who has a mental sickness and needs help."

"Typically, this person wants to get caught."

Perhaps, but so far the arsonist has struck early in the morning when most people are asleep. No one has been able yet to give police and fire investigators a description of the arsonist.

In the two most recent sets of multiple fires, the blazes were lit underneath or at the rear of a house using rags, paper or some other readily combustible material. Wednesday's fires were all reported within 25 minutes, and each was about three blocks from the one set immediately before.

In addition to the fire on Amelia Avenue, the second arson on that street in a week, firefighters were also called to fires at a vacant house at 2705 N Morgan St. and a home at 210 W Euclid Ave. The fire on Morgan Street did an estimated $10,000 in damage.

On Euclid, Christine Smalley, 78, smelled the smoke even before her smoke detector went off, and she called for her son Keith.

"I thought it was homeless people in the back," Keith Smalley said, adding that vagrants had once set a shed in the back yard on fire. But when he opened the front door, he could see flames shooting up from the edge of the porch. Fortunately, he said, a neighbor was already throwing water on the fire, which did about $1,000 in damage.

"If it had not been for the Lord and (the neighbor) ... we could have gotten burned to death," Mrs. Smalley said. "The bad part about it is, you don't know who's doing it. It's everywhere."

That is certainly how it seems to frightened Tampa Heights residents. Dave Davis, who has lived in Tampa Heights for five years, had been sleeping on the first floor of his 88-year-old house so that he could escape easily in case of fire, but he thought that the danger had passed when he went to bed upstairs Tuesday night.

He awoke Wednesday to news of the three latest fires and telephone calls from petrified neighbors.

At 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Davis and other members of the civic association gathered in front of the burned house on W Amelia Avenue to talk about forming patrols to roam the neighborhood.

And until the arsonist is caught, Davis plans to go back to sleeping downstairs.

-- Times staff writer Angela Moore contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or danielson@sptimes.com.

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