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Fire in face of foreclosure

A Regency Condominiums maintenance man survives a jump from his second-story balcony and faces an arson charge.

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Regency Condominiums residents Helen Butler, left, Anthony Cooper, holding a rabbit, and Alice McNeil watch as firefighters battle Thursday's blaze.

By CURTIS KRUEGER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 1, 2001


photo
ST. PETERSBURG -- Everyone at Regency Condominiums seems to know Harold David Jones, a repair whiz who has kept the pool sparkling, revamped the sprinkler system and fixed everything from ceiling fans to jammed locks, often for free.

But Jones also perplexed his neighbors, who wondered: How could he live for half a year without electricity? Why was his place so cluttered? And why, after learning his condo was being foreclosed on, did he tell a neighbor, "Have they got a surprise coming."

Those words rang in Gary Webber's mind on Thursday morning as he rushed to his neighbor's second-floor condo to see black smoke billowing out. Jones was stomach-down on the grass below, and later was transported to Bayfront Medical Center.

His entire apartment was burned, and two other units were damaged by smoke and water, a loss estimated at $100,000.

Jones' beloved dog, a shelty named Chi-chi who accompanied him everywhere, died in the fire.

Jones, 54, will be charged with arson for the fire at 1880 Massachusetts Ave. NE, in Shore Acres, St. Petersburg Fire Lt. Chris Bengivengo said. On the ambulance ride to the hospital, he acknowledged pouring a flammable liquid inside his two-bedroom apartment and setting it afire, Bengivengo said. Some residents said they heard what sounded like an explosion inside.

"I had no idea he would even think of doing something like this," said Helen Butler, a neighbor and friend.

At Bayfront, Jones was being treated for back pain after apparently jumping off the balcony. His condition was not available.

No one but Jones required medical attention, a fact Bengivengo considered remarkable given that Jones' cluttered, smoke-filled apartment contained half a dozen containers of gasoline or some other flammable liquid, including two plastic jugs that had begun to melt but did not ignite.

"We're all sitting around saying our little thank you prayers . . . the chance of someone being injured on that fire or killed are very high," Bengivengo said.

Regency residents said Jones is a retired telephone worker who recently had gotten a job at a boat manufacturer. Mrs. Butler said he always has been willing to help with fix-it projects. He installed her ceiling fans, put in a line for her icemaker and screwed in new fluorescent lights.

"If anybody had a honey-do list, he was the honey," she said.

He was paid for the pool maintenance, but he did many of the other jobs for free, neighbors said.

Webber said Jones' apartment was so crammed that you had to cut through passageways in the clutter. Among his belongings were shelves and shelves of hardware; dozens of commemorative plates showing eagles, wolves and John Wayne; a collection of classic car models; spare computers; old magazines; and mountains of papers.

Jones was in financial trouble. The electricity was shut off inside his apartment. Jones explained this by saying his identity had been stolen in some sort of Internet scam, which required him to put up a utility deposit which he refused to pay, said Susan Dick, the property manger.

He had some sort of solar apparatus on his balcony that enabled him to watch television, but it wasn't clear if he had a way to cook food inside, or keep it fresh, Webber said.

The condo, which he bought from another owner, was being foreclosed upon. A court filing says he owes more than $30,000 in interest, principal and penalties.

Webber, who has talked to Jones often, said Jones seemed to take troubles in stride, but he seemed under increasing stress about losing his home. Jones didn't go to work for two days this week and he repaid some money the condominium association had used to get him a license for pool maintenance -- even though the association didn't expect repayment.

Webber worried about the comment Jones made a few days ago -- "Have they got a surprise coming" -- but he thought it meant that he was going to file for bankruptcy, slowing down the foreclosure proceedings.

- Times staff writer J. Nealy-Brown contributed to this report.

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