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Man is accused of Wal-Mart arson

MANATEE — After a man was unable to fraudulently return items at the customer service counter at Wal-Mart, he set three clothing racks on fire in the men’s department Thursday afternoon, causing an estimated $500,000 in damage, according to authorities.

Investigators arrested Phillip R. Wright, 41, of Monroe, La., after witnesses identified and surveillance footage showed him igniting the blaze at a Wal-Mart Supercenter on 53rd Avenue East. He was arrested on a charge of arson with possibly more charges pending, said Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Capt. B.G. Dixon.

Loss prevention officers with Wal-Mart were able to examine the surveillance footage and alert employees at other Wal-Mart locations to look for a man matching Wright’s description.

The fire was radioed in by an on-duty Southern Manatee Fire Rescue inspector at 4:10 p.m. when he saw flames going over the shelves, said Southern Manatee Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Rick Blanco.

The fire was extinguished before the first fire engine arrived, he said.

The sprinkler system was never set off in the store.

One person was treated for smoke inhalation, according to emergency communications. The store was immediately evacuated and closed, according to authorities.

Deputies’ squad cars blocked off one of the entrances, and one Wal-Mart employee rerouted traffic at the rear entrance.

Almost two hours later, Wright was found at another Wal-Mart, 8320 Lockwood Ridge Road.

He was arrested at the customer service counter, Dixon said. Wright had a few boxes of water filters, several flavored water filter packets and a greeting card in his possession.

Crime scene investigators photographed the items for evidence on the sidewalk outside the Lockwood Ridge store. They also towed a tan Chevy 1500 pickup with Louisiana plates that had a busted windshield and missing passenger window. Investigators questioned two other people — a man, who was in the pickup with Wright, and a woman — about their possible involvement. Neither the man nor woman was charged.

It’s unclear when the 53rd Avenue East store will be reopened. Wal-Mart officials did not comment at the scene, and phone calls were not returned Thursday night from the corporate office.

Fire officials said there was no structural damage to the store. However, there was an estimated $500,000 in damaged merchandise from the chemicals in the extinguishers and the smoke.

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

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