Suspicious fire damages donations to mission

PUNTA GORDA -- "Suspicious" is how Charlotte County fire officials described a blaze on the property of The Bread of Life Mission in Punta Gorda Wednesday afternoon.

The fire destroyed a $400 free-standing tent and the donated furniture and appliances stored in it, which mission director Judy Jones valued at about $4,000.

"The mission has been having problems with code enforcement, but now we have this fire situation," Charlotte County Fire Chief Dennis DiDio said at the scene. "There was no electricity in the tent, so this is a suspicious fire."

State fire inspectors will investigate, DiDio said.

"Lucifer is trying to stop me, but he has a job to do," Jones said shortly after the blaze was extinguished. "This was nice furniture from Punta Gorda Isles, Port Charlotte and Deep Creek -- cherrywood furniture, TVs, stereos, the very best stuff we had. That's why we had it under a tent."

The sprawling, nonprofit mission, which occupies two blocks at the intersection of Scott Street and Helen Avenue, is a collection site for the furniture, clothing, food and other goods which Jones distributes to the needy. The mission had received a donation from Habitat for Humanity shortly before the fire was reported at 3:48 p.m.

Most of the mission's male residents were at work and the women were in the main house at the time, Jones said. The back gate to the storage yard behind the house was secured, but not locked.

Jones was preparing to make a delivery when Gary Eldridge, a mute resident of the mission, ran up to her, flicking a cigarette lighter and gesturing frantically to the back yard. That's when Jones saw the smoke.

Scribbling notes on a pad, Eldridge communicated that he had seen someone leaving the area who resembled a former resident of the mission. Jones said she believes she knows who the culprit is.

"I expect whoever did this to come back again," she said.

The main house and residents' living quarters weren't damaged, and no one was hurt.

"I feel blessed the fire was confined," Jones said. "We're not lucky, we're blessed."

This is the second time the mission has suffered a fire. Five years ago, a blaze that Jones said was arson destroyed its first location at 6401 Scott St.

Jones wants to erect a 50-foot-by-100-foot steel building to keep the donations safe, but said she hasn't been able to raise the estimated $18,000 it would cost. She is appealing for donations to help replace the items destroyed in the fire, as well as food for a planned Thanksgiving celebration. For more information or to help, call the mission at 575-4440.

You can e-mail Malcolm Brenner at