Lakeland Ledger

Arsonist Blamed In Two More Fires

By John Chambliss
The Ledger
john.chambliss@theledger.com

LAKELAND -- Lately, Roberta Houston peeks outside her window late at night, worried she'll see flames shooting from a nearby home or mobile home park.

Houston, 36, fears an arsonist who, according to Lakeland fire officials, has been torching vacant houses and other buildings in a neighborhood off North Florida Avenue.

"It has been pretty creepy around here lately," said Houston, who lives at a mobile home complex where fires have been set. "Whoever is doing this is good at not getting caught."

Lakeland fire officials said Sunday that about 10 vacant houses near one another in the northside neighborhood between Interstate 4 and North Florida Avenue have burned in the last year, including five in the last month.

No one has been injured, and fire officials said no one was in any of the buildings when they were set on fire.

Investigators said they think one person is responsible.

"He always has the same MO (mode of operation)," Lakeland Fire Inspector Earl Smith said. "It is after midnight, in a vacant building and in the same area."

The latest fires occurred early Sunday off North Florida Avenue close to where the road connects to State Road 33.

About 1:30 a.m. a fire heavily damaged a wood storage building used as a laundry for residents at the Crescent Court Mobile Home Park, fire officials said.

About 5 a.m., just across the street, a fire damaged a vacant house on Wilkins Avenue, causing $4,000 in damage, Smith said.

Smith said the sporadic routine of the arsonist or arsonists makes the fires difficult to investigate.

"He goes for a couple of months then he takes a break," Smith said.

It's unclear whether anything besides a lighter or a match is used to set the fires. "We think he's just lighting something inside," Smith said.

Many residents are unsettled by what's happened.

"It's getting dangerous," said George Barrett, 35, of West Crescent Drive. "It seems like he's doing it in twos."

Barrett and Houston said theythink the arsonist is someone who lives in the neighborhood.

The mobile homes off West Crescent Drive are in two complexes just off the road. Two weeks ago, a fire gutted a house on the 500 block of West Crescent Drive.

Fire officials said on Sunday that they did not have records of who owned that property and others that have been set on fire.

On Sunday, a poster on the house from the Lakeland Fire Department read "Arson" and said a cash reward was available for anyone with information that leads to an arrest. The poster said Fire Inspector Frank Bass is investigating and can be reached at 834-8201.

Some people in the neighborhood said they aren't overly concerned.

"I'm not worried about it," said Natasha Mizzell. "He's doing us a favor with those old trailers."

John Chambliss can be reached at john.chambliss@theledger.com or 863-802-7539.