GULFPORT — David Cretella climbed out of the cab and walked into his hardware store.
The 64-year-old shop owner had been drinking at O'Maddy's that night. He likely didn't realize he was being watched — by the taxi driver waiting outside and by a surveillance camera mounted on a grocery store across the street.
After spending a few minutes inside, Cretella left and climbed back into his waiting taxi. It was 8:21 p.m.
A minute later, smoke started to pour out of Gulfport Hardware. Flames erupted at 8:23 p.m., about the same time a pair of police officers noticed the blaze and called firefighters.
A crowd started to build.
Marty Condon, who owns a sign shop a few doors away, said he rushed over after getting frantic calls from friends who saw the flames from the road. Others with businesses in the complex soon showed up.
"Dave was nowhere to be found," Condon said. "I thought to myself, 'well that's odd.' "
Barely 24 hours later, the Seminole resident was in handcuffs. The fire, investigators said, was no accident.
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Every city takes pride in its local businesses. That might be even more true for Gulfport, a tiny beach community where everyone knows everyone.
A lot of people know David Cretella, who opened the Gulfport Hardware Store at 5006 Gulfport Blvd. S, in 2006.
People respected he was a little guy in a big business. He wasn't shy about competing with Home Depot or Lowe's. He would stock special tools local handymen needed, rescreen doors and windows or sell you a single screw if that's all you needed.
"He was kind of a folk hero, in that he was doing for the community," said Bob Newcomb, executive director of the Gulfport Chamber of Commerce, located a couple of doors down from the hardware store. "The very nature of that business is difficult. But he hung in there."
Cretella had many supporters — even the mayor.
"I encouraged people to shop local," said Mayor Mike Yakes, who said he stopped by about once a week. "And I admired him for what he was trying to do. . . . He'd ask people what they needed. If he didn't have it, he'd order it."
Yakes said he and Cretella talked often of their love for Gulfport, which he said the shop owner often described as "a good place to live, a good place to fish and a good place to do business."
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The Oct. 18 fire shocked everyone. Cretella's subsequent arrest on a second-degree arson charge was even more shocking.
What would he have gained, they wondered? He didn't own the building. He lamented about his high insurance deductibles.
"It's just a terrible thing for him to do, it if he did it — which it sounds like he did," said Rick Yarrington, who's known Cretella for several years. "You wonder what troubles a man to commit a crime like that. Thank God no one was hurt or killed."
Authorities are confident in their case, said Gulfport police Sgt. Tom Woodman.
Several arson investigators sifted through the fire site. "They could not find anything that showed it was accidental," Woodman said.
Cretella, Woodman said, gave several inconsistent statements in interviews and said he couldn't remember certain aspects about what he did while in the store, according to court documents.
Fire investigators said they found two areas of origin. The rapid speed of the blaze also suggests it was intentionally set, they said.
Cretella told the Tampa Bay Times before his arrest that he was shocked by the damage.
"My stomach just fell about 3 feet down to my knees," Cretella said standing outside the shop the day after the fire. "I've been here for seven years, and I never . . . I've never had a fire before."
Two weeks later, Cretella told a Times reporter he had nothing more to say about the fire. He denied torching his business, and said investigators "did all the talking."
Records show he spent a night a jail, and is out on $10,000 bail.
"I just want to get back to work," Cretella said by phone Friday. "It was no reason for me to burn down the business in the peak of my season."
Those who know him aren't so sure.
They said Cretella made no secret of the fact that in recent months, business was slow.
Yarrington owns the Golf Shop down the street. He and Cretella often chatted about business, and how much they were looking forward to snowbird season.
"He would always ask how my business was," Yarrington said. "From the beginning, he seemed to always say business was slow."
Yakes said Cretella's inventory changed recently. He started stocking bigger items like wheelbarrows, generators and heavy duty tools. They seemed to sit on the shelves longer, the mayor said.
And yet, Yarrington said, Cretella was always expanding. When Cretella first opened his shop on Gulf Boulevard, he occupied one unit, said building owner Jim Defoe. By the time of the fire, he occupied three units and about 3,000 square feet of space.
Defoe, who was reluctant to talk about the fire, declined to say how much Cretella paid in rent or whether he was under any unusual financial strain.
"I believe he planned to stay," Defoe said.
In fact, Yarrington said, Cretella recently talked about opening a second shop on St. Pete Beach.
Defoe, who lives in St. Petersburg, said the fire will mean a hit to his personal investments, but that "he'll survive." Damage from the fire has been estimated at $600,000.
"I just have no clue," he said. "I don't understand the thinking behind any thing like this."
Times researchers Natalie Watson and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.