Police say arsonist strikes while homeowners are out of town

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. - St. Petersburg homeowners are being warned by police about a serial arsonist on the loose who torches houses while the homeowners are out of town.

Four fires have been set since October 2011.  The most recent fired occurred November 25 in the 7900 block of 2nd Avenue South.

The homeowners were out town for the holidays.  They left their two dogs under the watch of a neighbor. One of their dogs, Merlin, a Welsh Corgi, perished in the fire.

"We saw the fire," said Sue Orlando, a concerned resident.  "I mean, it's scary.  Everybody is crying. It's just sad."

The homeowners were trying to salvage anything they could Monday afternoon but declined to speak with media on camera.  A man, who identified himself as the home's owner, said he lived with his wife in the home for 12 years.

"My understanding is they were obviously distraught," said Mike Puetz with the St. Petersburg Police Department. "There is a number of factors.  Obviously you are far away from home, you are not there to see the damage."

The first fire occurred on October 25, 2011.  A home in the 7900 block of 2nd Avenue South were out of town when the fire was set.  Arson investigators determined the fire was started inside the home. The home was later determined to be a total loss.

The second fire was set on September 4, 2012 on 79th Street South.  The home was empty at the time because the homeowner had recently passed away, police said.  According the detectives, a relative inspecting the property discovered that someone had attempted to set fire to an exterior part of the home near an air conditioning unit.  Detectives say this fire appeared to have self-extinguished and the damage to the home was minor.

The third fire took place on October 16, 2012 at a vacant residence also on 79th Street South.  Arson investigators determined the fire was set inside a screened porch attached to the house.  Damaged was confined to the porch and again the fire appeared to self-extinguish.

Detectives believe the person responsible knows the area.

"Common sense would suggest to us that one way or another they are familiar with the comings and goings of people.  Now that could mean someone that resides in the area or has some other connection the area that would give them that type of information," Puetz added.

In a neighborhood where late night dog walks and children playing in yards is a common site, residents are now looking at one another with suspicious eyes.

"It is scary.  You get suspicious of everybody in the neighborhood and all the different trucks.  It is hard," Orlando explained.

Detectives also say arsonists set fires for two very different reasons.

"There are they type that go for monetary gain, there's the type that has an emotional interest in it," Puetz explained.

Some residents are so scared their house could become the next target they declined to speak on camera.

"Everybody is talking about how they don't want to go on vacation anymore or even planned vacations that were supposed to be happening they are cancelling because they don't want to leave their homes," Orlando said.

Anyone with any information regarding these arsons is asked to please call the St. Pete PD Communications Center at 727.893.7780 or Detective Shorn at 727.892.5212.  Reference report #2012-070888

Anonymous tips can also be called in to 727.892.5000.  Or you can text an anonymous tip to 727.420.8911.

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