TAMPA — When Rodney Biddle saw smoke pouring out of a small Sligh Avenue home Monday morning, he pulled over and armed himself with a garden hose.
Little did he know, the owner of the home was armed with something else.
Police haven't said why Eddie Carl Jones, 59, answered the door to his burning home with a shotgun or how the fire started. But some of Jones' neighbors noted months of strange behavior and a tumultuous relationship with an exotic dancer.
According to Tampa Fire Rescue, at about 8:30 a.m. Monday, two police cruisers drove by the burning home at 115 W Sligh Ave., and pulled over to help. Biddle, who had been on the way to an appointment, was dousing smoldering scrap wood in the garage.
The officers banged on the front door. Jones answered, and through thick black smoke, police saw him clutching a shotgun.
"They yelled 'shotgun,' and we all scurried like a bunch of roaches when the lights come on," Biddle said. "I was right there trying to put the fire out. There was a piece of glass between us."
Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Bill Wade said Jones called for help soon after. When firefighters arrived, one dove through a window and found Jones unconscious. He was taken in serious condition to St. Joseph's Hospital, and the fire was put out in about 20 minutes.
Later Monday, a hospital spokeswoman said information on Jones was not available. He hasn't been charged with a crime, and an investigation is ongoing. Jones has no criminal record in Florida.
His neighbors stood outside for hours watching responders secure the scene. They told stories of a friendly man with a problematic personal life. They recalled loud fights between Jones and his girlfriend in the front yard and an incident at Lowry Park Zoo.
According to Tampa police records, Melissa Ann Santos, 28, reported Jones missing on May 25. Santos told police she was Jones' ex-girlfriend, that they just broke up, and that Jones threatened to kill himself by taking Xanax and driving down the road.
Later that day, a Lowry Park visitor called police about a man slumped over the steering wheel of a blue Jeep in the zoo parking lot, records state. The caller noticed the man around 1:30 p.m. and called police when he walked past him again about 7 p.m. Responders found Jones unresponsive and took him to a hospital.
Though Santos, the ex-girlfriend, warned police Jones could be armed with a rifle, police found no gun. He was not charged with a crime. Santos, who has a record of drug and battery charges, could not be reached for comment.
The most recent address listed for Santos, according to jail records from her last arrest in July, was Jones' home on Sligh. Santos was charged with domestic violence battery, possession of drug paraphernalia, bringing contraband into jail and possession of a controlled substance — Xanax. According to an arrest affidavit, she bit Jones on the face during an argument.
Jones teaches photography at Learey Technical School, 5410 N 20th St. A representative from the school declined to comment.
Daniel Gonzalez, who works at the city of Tampa special events office across from Jones' house, said he'd noticed a difference in his neighbor over the last few months.
Jones used to go on walks every day with hand weights — he now comes outside less and less. Jones used to "maintain his yard with a fine-tooth comb" — but tall grass and weeds now impede blue flowers planted outside. Sometimes, newspapers pile in his driveway for days.
"He's a super nice guy," Gonzalez said. "I just hope he's OK."
Gonzalez said Jones has two cats, but authorities found no animals inside.
A damage estimate was not available. One firefighter, Rush Roberts of Sulphur Springs Engine 11, was taken to the hospital for heat exhaustion.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.