St. Petersburg Times

Neighbors point at arsonist
A man who lived on the street admitted to setting a fire elsewhere. Now some wonder if he's to blame for other fires.
By S.I. ROSENBAUM
Published June 24, 2005

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BRANDON - Donna Laytart met her neighbor, William Marcus Gaskin, the night of the first fire.

It was Nov. 9, 2003. The neighborhood had turned out to watch a home at 710 Forest Hills Drive burn down. Gaskin, Laytart remembers, was milling in the street, talking to people about the fire. Everyone was doing that.

She saw Gaskin again when the next home burned, and the next.

"That was the only time we ever saw him," she said.

On April 25, Gaskin, 46, was convicted of arson - but not for any of the six fires that burned houses along his street between November 2003 and July 2004.

He pleaded guilty to putting a bundle of lit newspapers under a house on Peach Avenue in Seffner last August.

Laytart and other neighbors say they think Gaskin was setting fires on their street. So does county fire investigator Dave Watts.

But there is no evidence that implicates Gaskin in the Forest Hills fires. He lives on the street, and he was convicted of another arson - that's all the neighborhood has to go on. It could be a coincidence.

"Arson is the toughest type of crime to prove," Watts said. "You pretty much need either an eyewitness or a confession."

In this case, there is neither.

When the fires started on Forest Hills Drive in 2003, suspects were easy to come by, Watts said - too easy. "Everyone who lived in the neighborhood made the short list," he said. "We were basically doing background checks on everyone in the neighborhood."

But, he said, Gaskin was among "less than a handful we really, really looked into."

"He definitely met the criteria for someone who had means, motive and opportunity," Watts said. He did not specify what those were.

Still, Watts said, "Arson is such a hard thing to prove without physically putting the evidence in his hand."

In August, Gaskin and a friend, Dunu Fabyunkey, 30, of Tampa, were at the house of Fabyunkey's ex-girlfriend in Seffner when it started to burn.

Investigators questioned Gaskin, who denied having set the fire, according to police records. But after Gaskin failed a polygraph test, police said, he admitted to the crime.

He pleaded guilty in April to arson and possession of cocaine and was sentenced to three years in prison. He is serving the time at the Central Florida Reception Center in Orlando.

Gaskin could not be reached for this story. His lawyer, Charles Calandra, did not return several phone calls from the Times.

After Gaskin was arrested, Watts said, the fires on Forest Hills Drive stopped.

To some residents, that was telling.

Everyone knows everyone on Forest Hills Drive. While the fires were being set, every piece of information seemed precious. The pipelines set up then are still in place.

People talk. They gossip.

Donna Laytart said she heard right away when Gaskin was arrested. Everyone said he was probably the arsonist. But she's not sure.

Sometimes she wonders: The guy they've got locked up, is he really the one?

"And that's the scary part," she said. "We'd like him to admit it, at least quietly to someone, so word could get around."

A few doors down, Ozzie Manley, 81, has rebuilt her house, but still remembers the sound that woke her on July 23.

"I thought it was squirrels dropping acorns on the roof," she says. It was the sound of flames. Manley's house was the last to be set afire. She was the only resident who was home when a fire was set.

She's heard the rumors about Gaskin, too. "I can't say he did it," she said. "We're going to have to know, one way or the other."

Gaskin's mother, Josephine, still lives at 709 Forest Hills Drive, the house she shared with her son.

Her son didn't set the Forest Hills fires, she said.

The fire in Seffner for which he was convicted was "nothing like anything that happened" on Forest Hills Drive, she said. Instead, it was a small fire, causing only $500 in damage - not a house-wrecking inferno.

She says she knows the real Forest Hills arsonist is still at large.

"I'm afraid," she said. "I'm still keeping my lights on at night. I'm still as nervous as I ever was."

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at 661-2442 or srosenbaum@sptimes.com