Sun-Sentinel.com

Suspicious fires leave families homeless

By Shannon O'Boye
Staff Writer
Posted November 28 2002

Fort Lauderdale Two fires, at least one of which investigators say was arson, broke out within an hour of each other in the same apartment building Wednesday morning, leaving several family members who were battling their landlord over poor living conditions homeless.

Wanda "Renee" Brown spent Tuesday night baking potato pies for the Thanksgiving feast she was supposed to be hosting today. Wednesday morning, she left early to pick up fresh corn and run other errands. She returned home to find that everything she owned had gone up in flames.

"I lost everything I got," Brown said, fighting back tears. "I don't even have any family pictures."

Brown and her son moved into the center unit of the three-unit apartment building in the 400 block of Northwest 13th Avenue in August. Her mother, Juanita Anderson, moved into the rear apartment the following month, and her brother, Terrence LaGree, lived in the first apartment with his girlfriend and two young children.

Brown said she paid her landlord, Phanuel St. Vil, $3,000 to move into an apartment in the 2700 block of Northwest 14th Street, but when she showed up with her moving van, somebody else was living there. She said she had no choice but to accept St. Vil's option of moving into the building on Northwest 13th Avenue instead, which she described as run-down.

"I fixed that damn apartment up," she said Wednesday. "I fixed the walls. I put the border up. I painted them. I worked hard. I worked too hard."

Brown, an employee with the state Agency for Workforce Innovation, and her mother said they angered the landlord when they reported a host of problems to city code enforcement officers. They said there were holes in the ceiling, electrical problems, trash outside the building, and bars on the inside of windows posing a fire hazard.

Fire Inspector Ron Tetreault confirmed that the city's Code Enforcement Department had notified the landlord about the need to fix several violations.

St. Vil could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

He sent an eviction notice to Brown in September and Anderson in October. Anderson moved out of her apartment last week. She lived in the $400-a-month apartment for two months. She has the receipt for the $1,375 she paid in advance before moving in, but she doesn't have much hope of recouping any of that money. Brown said her receipt for the $3,000 she paid St. Vil burned in the fire.

Fire investigators estimated the damage at $50,000. Neither Brown nor her brother had rental insurance.

Firefighters were called to the building about 10 a.m. Wednesday morning to extinguish a blaze in apartment No. 1. Originally, they thought the fire was electrical in nature because the couch that caught on fire was near an electrical outlet. But when they were called back an hour later for a fire in apartment No. 2, they restarted the investigation.

By 4 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, investigators were sure that someone intentionally set a fire under or on a toddler's bed in the rear bedroom of the second apartment. They changed the cause of the first fire to "undetermined" and collected evidence they will test to see if an accelerant was used to start that fire, too.

"There was no accidental source in or around the bed" in apartment No. 2, Tetreault said. The fire in the first unit was "completely separate" from the second blaze. "There's no way it could have traveled there," he said.

Firefighters said the fire in the second apartment was set after they battled the first blaze and left. No firefighters broke into the second apartment to check for fire, but several of them looked through the windows of apartment No. 2 and saw nothing.

When they left after the first fire, all the apartments were locked. When they responded to the second fire, they found the back door on apartment No. 2 open.

Police detectives interested in bringing criminal charges against whoever set the fire or fires joined the investigation Wednesday afternoon.

The family said they were not sure whether or where they would celebrate Thanksgiving.

"When you ask me about that, I get upset," Brown said.

Staff Researcher William Lucey contributed to this report.



Shannon O'Boye can be reached at soboye@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4597.