Series of arson fires in historic Houston neighborhood puzzles authorities, rattles residents

Sunday, December 27, 2009

22 and counting: Mystery fires rattle Houston

HOUSTON — A four-foot pile of ash and charred debris is all that remains of the Rodriguez family’s two-story garage, which had been stuffed with tools, machinery, couches and appliances when a mysterious fire ripped through it earlier this month.

It was the 22nd arson that has taken place since August in a historic Houston neighborhood called the Heights, known more for its comforting small-town feel in the midst of big city sprawl than for being the center of criminal activity.

Most of the fires have taken place in the middle of the night and nearly always in abandoned structures, though flames have leapt to some adjacent occupied homes, frightening residents like the Rodriguez family.

“I just don’t know when they are going to catch this guy,” a dejected Jesus Rodriguez said as he stood over his truck’s pickup bed, dirtied by ash and scorched pieces of wood after it had been used to haul away the debris.

Authorities charged a suspect last month for starting one of the blazes. But he has not been charged with any of the other arsons and the fires continued even after his arrest. Residents of the Heights, which sits on one of Houston’s rare hills overlooking nearby downtown, have taken some comfort no one has been hurt. But they worry their property could be next.

“I don’t feel like they have the person that did it,” said Diane Kight, who lives across the street from a home set ablaze on Nov. 11. She was recently driving home after taking her husband to work and saw a fire truck, and immediately worried it could be speeding to her house. “It’s scary.”

The damage to the Rodriguez garage came when an empty house next door was set ablaze in the early morning hours of Dec. 4, and the flames quickly spread to the Rodriguez’s garage in the back of their one-story brown Craftsman style bungalow, where they have lived for 25 years. The fire also damaged a portion of the back roof, now covered by a blue tarp. Two bedrooms won’t be used until the roof can be fixed but it could be awhile.

“We don’t have insurance. There is no money to fix it,” said Jesus Rodriguez.

His son, Randall Rodriguez, 23, said the tools and machinery were part of a repair business run by his mother and were being temporarily stored in the garage until his parents could open up a new shop. The furniture and appliances belonged to Randall Rodriguez and his wife, who had temporarily moved back in with his parents. The total loss is estimated at $70,000.

The fires have kept to the Heights, a neighborhood of more than 40,000 residents first developed in 1892. Its streets are lined by majestic trees and stately Victorian-styled homes. The locally owned antiques and coffee shops and art galleries give it a laid-back atmosphere.

But the landscape has changed on some streets. Some of the torched structures still stand, littered with burned mattresses, blackened photographs. Others have been torn down, only a concrete foundation or dirt lot remaining.

The fires have shared a similar pattern: The arsonist targets mostly older, unoccupied homes, garages, storage sheds and other structures, setting them ablaze either late in the evening or in the early morning hours. A few of the fires happened at occupied homes but no one was hurt. Some structures have been set ablaze more than once. One location was hit four times.

“We’re very lucky that no one has been hurt,” said Alison Stein, assistant chief investigator for the Houston Fire Department.

Arson investigators have concluded all the fires were intentionally set, Stein said. But authorities won’t say how the fires have been started, if they believe one person or several are responsible or what their motive is.

A suspect, David Prince, 30, was arrested and indicted for arson, accused of starting a Sept. 17 fire at a vacant house. Prince admitted he started the blaze with a piece of paper, according to court records. But he has not been charged with any other blazes. His attorney, Danny Easterling, said prosecutors have indicated his client is not a suspect in the other arsons.

“It would be a strong indication … that he’s not related to any of those others because they continue to happen,” Easterling said.

The firebug could be out for publicity, not terror, since no one has been hurt, said Tod Burke, a criminal justice professor at Radford University in Virginia. Burke, a former police officer, said he thinks the arsonist is probably a thrill seeker and either lives or works in the neighborhood because he knows which buildings are vacant.

Chris Silkwood, president of the Houston Heights Association, said residents are being encouraged to continue reporting any unusual activity and to keep in contact with neighbors. The association is working on hiring a second constable to patrol the Heights.

“There are more than 20 fires that have occurred. Obviously the problem is not solved,” he said.

Until it is, residents will worry if their home could be next.

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