FIRESTARTER: A local neighborhood deals with a serial arsonist

Since 2015, a Northwest Jacksonville neighborhood known as "Birdville" has been seeing an uptick of arsons in the area, sparking concerns for neighbors whose families have been living there for generations.

At least 25 fires burned homes in Birdville; some homes were burned more than once. None

At least 25 separate arsons that happened over the past two and a half years in a Northwest Jacksonville neighborhood have sparked a federal investigation and ignited fear among families living in Birdville.

"They have basically seen their neighborhood burn down," said Kristie Calhoun, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and certified fire investigator.

Now, the ATF and state fire investigators are searching for a person(s) who may be responsible for setting the fires; a possible serial arsonist.

"It is not a coincidence that you have that many fires in that small of an area," Calhoun said.

The fires are linked by specific fire patterns and a geographical area of less than a quarter-square mile that makes up Birdville, according to the ATF. The total land size is about 110 acres.

"Arson is a very serious problem," Calhoun said. "It is a violent crime."

In Birdville, it's the home of at least two-dozen crime scenes, as well as the site of a federal arson investigation.

Since 2015, a Northwest Jacksonville neighborhood known as "Birdville" has been seeing an uptick of arsons in the area, sparking concerns for neighbors whose families have been living there for generations. None

One Fire... to 25 Fires

It was Thursday, April 30, 2015 when the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department (JFRD) was dispatched to 6318 Bluebird Rd. around 11:10 p.m.

A JFRD report obtained by First Coast News described the scene as a "single-family residential fire" with "flames coming [from] the house."

Around 11:17 p.m., a neighbor told JFRD dispatch that they didn't believe anyone was home, but the fire on the back side of the home was spreading. JFRD arrived a minute later.

JFRD notified the State Fire Marshal it was needed on the scene at 11:30 p.m. The home was considered a total loss.

Neighbor Toni Simonton had a front-row seat living next door to the house that caught on fire. She said the flames were too close.

"The flames is right there," she said. "You could almost spit on the trailer. The flames were so close."

She said she prayed that the fire was an accident before a new reality set in. Turns out, someone was intentionally setting neighborhood homes on fire, according to the ATF.

"What joy could they be getting out of setting these fires," she asked. "I don't get it. I just don't get it."

Simonton's home on Bluebird Road hasn't been touched by an arsonist, but she said it has seen close calls. Her neighbors' homes have been intentionally torched, including her sister-in-law's home next door. Her house was abandoned after an accidental fire caused by a space heater on Feb. 9, 2016, according to the ATF.

Simonton's sister-in-law's now abandoned home caught on fire two more times. The second time it happened in April of 2016, which marked the fifth suspected arson in the neighborhood. When it caught fire again for a third time on Nov. 24, 2016, it marked the 18th suspected arson. 

Investigators believed a serial arsonist was responsible.

"That trailer right there burnt down in like [12] minutes," Simonton said.

Simonton, along with other neighbors in the area, pray that her family's house isn't next.

"I hope and pray it don't happen," she said.

Arson is a hot crime in Florida

“There is definitely no shortage of fires in Northeast Florida,” Calhoun said.

Nearly 1,500 arson cases have been opened each year in the state since 2013, according to statistics from the Florida Department of Financial Services. (Arson is considered a financial crime in Florida.)

In Northeast Florida specifically, from 2013 to 2016, at least 250 arson cases have been opened every year during the same time frame. (Northeast Florida, which is served by the Jacksonville Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations, covers Baker, Bradford, Clay, Columbia, Duval, Nassau, Putnam, St. Johns, Union counties.)

Through October 2017, only 194 fires have been investigated as arson, but officials warn that number is expected to rise.

“Fires are extremely difficult to understand and investigate,” said state arson investigator Caleb Douglas.

State officials said the winter months are traditionally a busier fire season. Out of the 1,200-plus cases worked since 2013, only 334 arrests have been made in Northeast Florida.

Since 2013, at least $129 million has been lost statewide due to arson. In Northeast Florida, that number is at least $20 million and is expected to grow.

Calhoun said revenge and fraud are two of the leading causes behind arson.

“The recent string of intentionally set fires that we have seen in the Birdville area of Jacksonville pose a serious threat and are a detriment to the surrounding community,” said CFO and State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis in a statement to First Coast News. “It only takes one fire to get out of control for lives to be lost, families to be destroyed and property forever lost. It is my hope that members of the community will join our efforts by reporting any past or future suspicious activities and realize, before it’s too late, the very serious threat that these types of activities pose.”

While the exact price tag for Birdville isn’t known, several homes and structures have been damaged, causing thousands of dollars in damages, according to Patronis.

Investigating a Serial Arsonist(s)

Due to the amount of fires that appear intentionally set in Birdville, the ATF has launched a federal investigation.

Everything inside an arson crime scene is unique, according to Calhoun.

"And a piece of the puzzle," Calhoun said. "When I first walk into a room, the first thing I notice, where is the most damage?"

As part of the investigation, the ATF agents and state fire marshal detectives visited a charred site that was once a family home on Bob-O-Link Road.

"What we try to do is look at the fire patterns and let them kind of tell the story," Calhoun, who received specialized training to become a fire investigator, said.

Calhoun and Douglas walked around a former living room as the floor exhaled a plume of dust and ash. Nature has taken over and only spiders sat on what was once the family-favorite chair. Based on their experience, they said the scene was unusual.

The fear with not catching the person or persons responsible behind the arsons is growing in the neighborhood, but investigators said they haven't lost faith.

"This many fires in this small of an area... this is a very tight-knit community," Calhoun said. "Someone is talking about it."

Not only is the town close knit in nature, but it is close quarters in terms of size.

"A geographical area like Birdville is not secluded from the rest of the world," Douglas said. "It is only a matter of time. If this was one person or a group of people involved in these fires. Trying to figure out how a fire started is like tracking a wounded animal through the woods. You have to know what to look for."

The Aftermath in the Community

Seared walls, a collapsing roof and a charred family chair are all that remains of Minnie Johns’ childhood home. Like the other homes, hers was damaged because of arson.

“We would try to get [dad and mom] to build a new place, but mom said no because this house has too many memories and she didn’t want to let go,” Johns said. “Mom would pray every night that the house would stand as long as she lived.”

Johns’ mother lived in the house for nearly 65 years. After she passed in 2009, Johns and her family could never bring themselves to sell the home.

Within the past year, the house was set on fire three separate times.

“My heart sunk down to my stomach because I thought about all the prayers my momma prayed this house would stay standing," she said.

As the hours and days go by and no suspect publicly identified, a new fear grows.Johns has prayed the person(s) responsible for starting at least 25 fires in Birdville is caught.

Neighbors like the Johns and Birdville’s other families go back, in some cases, generations. This fact serves as an extra motivation for investigators.

“At what point do they run out of buildings to set fire to and they go to another geographical area,” Douglas said.

Contact

Investigators are asking members of the community to call if they think they have information related to these fires.

They are encouraged to contact the Arson Tip Hotline at 1-877-NO-ARSON (1-877-662-7766) or (888) ATF-FIRE  (888-283-3473).

Callers can choose to remain anonymous. Any information leading to a successful arrest and prosecution may be eligible for a cash reward of up to $5,000 from the Florida Advisory Committee on Arson Prevention, and even an additional $5,000 from the ATF.

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