String of blazes raises suspicions

Law enforcement offices working with local investigators to probe fires

By Derek Simmonsen staff writer
July 31, 2003

ST. LUCIE COUNTY -- An abandoned trailer fire last week was the latest in a string of 14 suspicious fires that have occurred along U.S. 1 since January.

The fires have happened between Midway Road north to Gardenia Avenue along U.S. 1, said Capt. Buddy Emerson, of the St. Lucie County Fire Marshall's Office. Local fire investigators are working with the State Fire Marshall's Office, the Fort Pierce Police Department and the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office on the case, he said.

"The circumstances surrounding the fires, the characteristics of the fires themselves, caused us to be suspicious," Emerson said.

The fires have ranged from a Dumpster fire to blazes at an unoccupied gas station and a recreational vehicle dealership, Emerson said. Though the fires are all suspicious, it does not mean that the same person is necessarily behind all of them, he said.

"There's nothing that would absolutely rule out more than one person," Emerson said.

Most of the fires have happened during the early morning hours, but fires have occurred anywhere between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m., he said.

The recent fire on July 24 was at an abandoned trailer at Tanglewood Mobile Home Park, in the 300 block of East Weatherbee Road, around 12:06 a.m., according to reports. The trailer was engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived, and an initial investigation revealed that there was evidence of some type of propellant found under the trailer.

One of the largest fires took place June 2 at a closed Marathon gas station, at 3810 South U.S. 1, around 1:04 a.m., according to reports. Firefighters found the building in flames when they arrived and estimated that the fire caused about $100,000 worth of damage.

Two of the fires even happened within 20 minutes of each other at auto repairs shops on U.S. 1 in the early hours of May 21, according to reports. Three junk cars were set on fire behind Discount Auto Body, in the 500 block of Farmer's Market Road and the second fire damaged a 30-foot-long motorhome and two other cars behind the Auto Clinic repair shop, in the 3300 block of U.S. 1, causing about $12,000 worth of damage.

Fire investigators began to consider the number of fires suspicious in the early spring, Emerson said. No other fires outside this area on U.S. 1 are believed to be linked, he said.

"We have increased patrols along U.S. 1 and we have received some suspect information and we are following up on that," said Audria Moore, a Fort Pierce police spokeswoman. She could not offer further details on the investigation.

The Sheriff's Office confirmed its involvement in the cases, but could not comment on the specifics of the investigation.

While local fire investigators do not have arrest powers, the State Fire Marshall's office does, as do deputies and officers who are assisting on the case, Emerson said. The State Fire Marshall's office also offers "another set of eyes" to analyze evidence, he said.

"We don't want to encourage copycats nor do we want to tip our hands," Emerson said about the investigation. "It's definitely not a common occurrence."

Members of the public are encouraged to contact the Sheriff's Office or Fort Pierce Police Department if they have information regarding the fires, Emerson said.

- derek.simmonsen@scripps.com