TAMPA — After fire gutted his home three years ago, Navy Lt. Nolen Zander told investigators the burns on his face and hands were from the radiator in his Volkswagen Jetta.
On Tuesday, the intelligence officer stationed at MacDill Air Force Base was arrested and charged with first-degree arson and burning a building to defraud an insurer. Investigators say that on March 17, 2014, Zander used gasoline to set fire to the house at 6512 36th Ave. S he owned with his wife, then filed a claim for damages with his insurance company, Tower Hill Insurance.
Hillsborough County Fire Rescue crews arrived at the property in the Palm River-Clair Mel area about midnight to find the two-bedroom, single-story house on fire, court records state. Authorities suspected arson after smelling gasoline and finding a door open. County fire investigators later determined gasoline was used to set a number of fires inside. An "incendiary device" that didn't detonate was found in a detached apartment on the property that also was doused in gasoline.
Zander arrived at the scene that morning and told investigators he and his wife were sleeping at a Quality Inn in Weeki Wachee at the time of the blaze. But as they interviewed him at his neighbor's house, investigators noticed he was badly burned on his arms, head, neck and face.
The couple told investigators that neither of them left their room on the night of the fire and that Nolen Zander was burned by an overheated car radiator while driving back to Tampa between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. But surveillance video from the hotel showed the couple's Jetta leave and return to the parking lot several times between 1:48 a.m. and 7:20 a.m., records state.
At 7:16 a.m., surveillance footage from a CVS pharmacy in Weeki Wachee showed Natasha Zander buying gauze bandages, petroleum jelly and Hyland's Nerve Tonic.
Investigators learned that Zander, 43, was planning to leave his military assignment and that his wife was unemployed.
"I also learned Mr. Zander changed insurance companies four months prior to the fire to increase his coverage limitations and obtain coverage for an 'in-laws' quarters on the property, which was also involved in this crime," lead fire investigator David Tucker wrote in a search warrant.
Nolen Zander was arrested on a warrant by Tampa police officers and booked into a Hillsborough County jail. He remained there Wednesday in lieu of $9,500 bail. An attorney for Zander listed in jail records did not return a message from the Tampa Bay Times.
Natasha Zander, who could not be reached for comment, has not been charged, but the case is still under investigation, said Corey Dierdorff, a Hillsborough Fire Rescue spokesman.
Nolen Zander's arrest interrupts what was a supposed to be the twilight of the Navy man's career.
He enlisted in 1991, was commissioned as an officer in 2007 and promoted to lieutenant in 2011, the same year he was transferred to U.S. Central Command's Joint Intelligence Operations Center at MacDill, according to his official military biography.
In May 2015, Zander posted on Facebook that he tried to retire, "but I have to do 10 years as an officer," so his waiver request was denied and he was being transferred to Bahrain. He served with the Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain from July 2015 to March 31 and is currently assigned to the Navy Operational Support Center in Tampa.
Times staff writer Howard Altman and senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.