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Cops: Wal-Mart firebug was carrying crack cocaine

MANATEE — A man accused of setting three racks of clothes on fire in a Manatee Wal-Mart store had crack cocaine on him at the time of his arrest, according to Manatee County Sheriff’s Office reports released today.

Local and state authorities have arrested Phillip R. Wright, 41, on charges of arson, arson with injury, retail theft and possession of crack cocaine.

A Florida State Fire Marshal’s report says Wright can be seen on surveillance video from the Wal-Mart, at 2911 53rd Ave. E., kneeling down behind a clothes rack for several seconds, before making the same movements at two more clothing racks.

Smoke can be seen creeping up the racks as Wright moved to the next one, according to the fire marshal’s report.

Sheriff’s detectives say Wright lit the clothes on fire after Wal-Mart employees refused to give him money for merchandise he tried to return after stealing it from the same store.

After authorities say Wright lit the fires, he walked out of the store wearing a hat he had stolen. Two hours later they arrested him at another Wal-Mart on Lockwood Ridge Road, again trying to return stolen merchandise at a customer service desk.

By the time deputies arrested Wright, the fire in the Wal-Mart had caused thousands of dollars worth of damage to merchandise and one person had to be hospitalized for smoke inhalation. There was no structural damage, so the store re-opened Friday after being closed Thursday night.

Detectives captured Wright, of Louisiana, after employees from the Wal-Mart on 53rd Avenue East warned other Wal-Mart employees in the area to be on the lookout for Wright.

When detectives captured Wright at the Lockwood Ridge store, a search of his pockets revealed a small metal tin that held crack cocaine, the sheriff’s report said. Authorities also questioned him about the fires, which he denied setting. He did admit to stealing merchandise from the store, according to the fire marshal’s report.

Sheriff’s spokesman Dave Bristow said one of two people waiting in a car outside the Wal-Mart where the fires took place has been arrested. Chester Hayes Jr., 49, has also been charged with retail theft after detectives found both he and Wright were communicating with two-way radios.

The pair were using the radios so Wright could signal when to be picked up in front of the store, the sheriff’s report said. A woman with the men has not been arrested.

Bristow said the arson case is one of the stranger cases the sheriff’s office has dealt with.

“At first, we thought we just had a disgruntled customer, which was strange enough,” said Bristow. “Then it got stranger when we found out he got mad because the store wouldn’t give him money for stuff he just stole from the store. I don’t know how you follow the thought process there.”

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