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    House fire kills neighborhood handyman

    By CHRIS TISCH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 21, 2000


    LARGO -- Arthur McAffee was known to pedal his bicycle through local neighborhoods, skidding to a stop when he saw people he knew, asking if they needed help cutting the grass or fixing their lawn mowers or bicycles.

    A wizard with a wrench, McAffee could widen children's smiles by mending their bikes. Or he could help an old man by offering to tinker with his tractor.

    McAffee didn't demand that money exchange hands for his services, but it often did. And that's when Arthur McAffee's life turned sour. He would take the cash, speed his bicycle to the nearest corner store and buy beer, according to family members.

    An alcoholic for most of his life, McAffee sometimes became unpleasant when he drank, family members said. "When he got drunk, he talked trash," said his brother, Willie McAffee. "And some people didn't like that."

    Early Tuesday, firefighters were summoned to a small home in southwest Largo where McAffee had been staying. Flames engulfed the home and shot from the windows. Fire crews doused the fire in minutes and entered.

    Inside was Arthur McAffee. His burned body lay on the floor. Near him were cigarettes and several empty beer bottles.

    Investigators say the blaze was accidental, caused by a cigarette that caught McAffee's bedding on fire. Some family members said McAffee, 32, probably got drunk Monday night and passed out with a cigarette between his fingers.

    The booze that marked his life probably contributed to his death, they said.

    "He loved his alcohol," said his aunt, Cynthia Thurman. "He probably got so drunk he fell asleep with a cigarette."

    Despite his alcohol problem, family members said McAffee was a thoughtful and caring man. He steered his black bicycle, with two baskets affixed on the back and reflectors snapped on the spokes, around local streets looking for odd jobs.

    "He was kindhearted," his brother said. "He loved helping people whether they gave him anything or not."

    Thurman said McAffee was born in North Florida, then moved to the Largo area in November 1990. He lived with her for several years, but he drank and didn't help pay the bills, she said. Raising four children, Thurman asked her nephew to move out about three years ago.

    McAffee still came around often. Thurman let him fix meals from her refrigerator, take a bath in her tub and wash his clothes. He would do handiwork around Thurman's home.

    "He was very bright at that kind of stuff," Thurman said as she fielded phone calls from family members and friends every few minutes Tuesday morning. "I would tell him, "If you put your head together, you could do well for yourself and start your own business.' "

    The small home where McAffee died, 12717 Orange St., belongs to J.R. Breedlove, whose wife died about a year ago. Breedlove lives in a larger house next door and kept many of his wife's things in the small home on his property. They were destroyed in the fire. Damage is estimated at $15,000.

    McAffee's family said Breedlove and McAffee worked out a deal where McAffee mowed Breedlove's lawn in exchange for free rent. They said he had been living there about two months.

    Breedlove, who has owned the property for four decades, said he remembers no such deal. When a neighbor shook him out of bed Tuesday morning, he was surprised to learn McAffee was inside.

    Willie McAffee said his brother was nomadic. Though he was expected at his aunt's house Christmas Day, he probably would have slipped out early, hopped on his bicycle and ridden around.

    "He'd ride that bicycle and beat you there in your car," Thurman said. "He'd go to Clearwater, Largo, everywhere. He loved that bike."

    Breedlove said a man riding a bicycle in the area first spotted smoke rising from the home, then told a neighbor, who called 911.

    About 13 firefighters were called to the home at 1:08 a.m. and arrived three minutes later, said Largo District Fire Chief Pat McGinley.

    Pinellas County sheriff's officials said it appears McAffee awoke and rose from his bed while the fire raged, but stumbled to the floor. McGinley said McAffee probably died from smoke inhalation before flames reached him.

    Family members said McAffee is survived by four brothers and four sisters and his mother, who lives in Tallahassee and was traveling by bus to the area Tuesday afternoon.

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