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Arson fires rattle Palmetto residents

PALMETTO — Residents remained fearful Saturday after a third house in the same downtown neighborhood was destroyed by arson this month.

A white house with brick pillars was charred throughout late Friday. A metal overhang was in the front yard Saturday, yellow police tape surrounded the blackened property, and a sign declaring the crime of arson was tacked to tree.

The house, which was divided into apartments, is in the 500 block of Sixth Avenue West just east of the main street, Eighth Avenue West, and just south of the east-west connector, 10th Street West.

Four residents were displaced from the fire, which was intentionally set by someone just before 11 p.m. on the front porch, said North River Fire District Fire Marshal Ron Cales.

It’s unclear whether the other arson fires are related. Those fires were set to two abandoned homes in the 500 and 600 blocks of Seventh Avenue West. Since then, both houses have been demolished.

“To have that many fires in that close proximity is unusual,” Cales said. “Again, it’s highly suspect.”

Residents said the fires began a few weeks ago when someone began setting dumpster fires.

A woman who lives in the neighborhood declined to give her name out of fear. She said she is thinking of moving out of her apartment because of the fires.

“It’s terrifying because you don’t know if your building is going to be next. You jump at every little noise. It’s hard to sleep,” she said. Her home has bubbled siding and melted blinds from the close proximity of one of the fires.

“During the day, you feel OK. But at night — at night, you wait,” she said.

Each time the fires seem to escalate in severity, she said.

In Friday night’s fire, one firefighter battling the blaze was injured, and two cats died.

“My two babies — Blackberry and Pumpkin,” sobbed a woman as she watched firefighters put the flames out of her apartment. Her cats were trapped inside.

“They’ve been setting fires all over the place. Someone’s going to get killed if they don’t catch him soon. Everything I own is in there. I lost everything,” she said.

Investigators are withholding how the fire was started in the residence.

A person of interest was interviewed early Saturday morning and arrested on an unrelated charge of carrying a concealed weapon, said Palmetto Police Department Lt. Scott Tyler.

The 30-year-old man, who lives in the neighborhood, was interviewed after police canvassed the area. He was carrying brass knuckles when police found him.

“As of yet we have not charged him with the fires,” Tyler said.

As of Saturday night, he remained in jail on a $1,000 bond. Physical evidence, which Tyler would not describe, was found at the scene.

“There’s a bunch of loose ends we’re trying to tie up right now. Hopefully, we might tie someone in,” Tyler said, waiting for evidence to come back.

A North River Fire District firefighter was taken to Manatee Memorial Hospital after he suffered from smoke inhalation and sustained bruised ribs fighting the fire. Cales said the firefighter was released from the hospital and is recovering.

The American Red Cross assisted with helping two of the displaced residents find places to stay. The others found family or friends to stay with.

Anyone with any information about the fires can contact Palmetto Police Department Sgt. Stephen Greer at 723-4587, ext. 103, or remain anonymous and possibly be eligible for a reward up to $1,000 by calling Crimestoppers at (866) 634-TIPS (8477). The Florida Advisory Committee on Arson Prevention is also offering a reward up to $1,000 or more. The committee can be reached at (407)843-7900.

Beth Burger, criminal justice reporter, can be reached at 708-7919.

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