Arsonists may have hit DeSoto Park again

A fire causes $30,000 worth of damage to the same area torched in 2001 and 2003

SYLVIA LIM

Herald Staff Writer


MANATEE - For the third time in four years, someone set fire to the same historical hut at DeSoto National Memorial Park.

Flames from Saturday night's fire razed a chickee - a type of hut - and several signs in the park's living history display called Camp Uzita, causing an estimated $30,000 in damage, authorities said. Suspects in the case include two men and two girls believed to be minors.

The suspects were seen in the park between 8 and 9 p.m. Saturday, said Dane Tantay, a U.S. park ranger based in the Big Cypress National Preserve east of Naples. Witnesses say the group might have been swimming and were near the display.

After the blaze, they were seen running away, and a dark-colored sport utility type vehicle picked them up, Tantay said.

Michael Rieley, chief of maintenance for the park, said he was deeply disappointed that someone would try to destroy part of the park.

"We've always been vandalized, but never to the extent to what we've seen now," said Rieley, who has worked there for 18 years.

Local, state and national law enforcement authorities are looking into the fire that started at about 8:30 p.m. at the 26-acre park on 75th Street West near the mouth of the Manatee River. Flames licked the tall wooden fences surrounding the camp and charred nearby trees. New signs installed near the burnt chickee were reduced to several heaps of ashes.

"It was the same chickee and fence burnt the last two times," said Kurt Lathrop, a fire marshal for West Manatee Fire Rescue.

Park authorities gave investigators a surveillance tape taken the night of the fire.

The first fire on Jan. 20, 2001, razed two chickees and caused about $12,000 in damage, The Herald reported. But police caught Ariss "Bo" Chandler, 23, who was convicted of arson and sentenced to five years in prison plus restitution, state corrections records show. He was released last year, and his last listed address is in Palmetto.

Then, on Nov. 28, 2003, another fire destroyed a replica of a 14th century officer's hut. Overall damage from the second blaze was estimated at $20,000, and authorities have not arrested anyone in connection with that fire.

"The second (fire) is still an open case," Tantay said. "We have possible witnesses to that also who are tied in to this case."

But he declined to say if the suspects involved in Saturday's fire are also linked to the 2003 blaze.

Because of the palm fronds used to make the roof of the chickee, Lathrop said any ordinary combustibles, such as a lighter, could set it on fire. And since the camp sits near the coast, winds could easily fan the flames.

The fire is an untimely blow for park officials, who spent $200,000 on renovations in 2003, The Herald reported.

Just last year, park officials added signs made of top-quality fiberglass to the burnt chickee, Rieley said. The hut was made to order by Seminole Indians in Tampa.

Officials need everything rebuilt in time for the May 31 re-enactment of Hernando DeSoto's landing near the camp.

"It's very frustrating for us," Rieley said. "It's needless taxpayers' dollars wasted. Everyone loses something on it."

Since the first two fires, park authorities have increased patrols, said Charles Fenwick, the park superintendent. They are also in the process of hiring a new park law enforcement ranger.

"This is very sad. Not many people have what we have," he said. "We're really lucky to have a national park in our back yard."

Sylvia Lim, criminal justice reporter, can be reached at 745-7041 or slim@HeraldToday.com.