Thursday, May 24, 2018
Public safety

Woman arrested on burglary charge could be connected to string of arsons in west St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — Residents in the Causeway Isles neighborhood have been on edge for months.

Since October 2011, six homes have been set on fire in this waterfront community on the city's west side. Two of those homes were burned so badly they had to be torn down.

This week, police arrested a 26-year-old woman they believe is connected to the arsons.

Jessica Bianca Sowick was arrested Monday on a charge of residential burglary. She has not been charged in connection with any of the fires.

Early Friday morning, police said, a covert security camera captured images of someone going into the back yard of a vacant home at 181 79th St. S — where fires have been set three times before.

The person on camera scribbled words on at least three walls and windows .

The messages, scrawled in permanent marker, contained various profanities, police said. But they also included these two phrases: "Fire Starter" and "You Never Got Me."

In an interview with detectives on Monday, police said, Sowick admitted she was the one captured on that video. She lives in the house next door. She denied setting the fires.

No one answered the door on Tuesday at Sowick's home, which she shares with her mom.

"It's quite a shame," said Mike Jasek, vice president of the Causeway Isles neighborhood association. "It's been kind of a waiting game. Still ... it's hard to believe she's the one."

Jasek and other neighbors said the fires have been a source of fear for months. They were surprised, however, about detectives suspicions involving Sowick.

The fires began Oct. 25, 2011 at 7909 Second Ave. S. Police believe someone entered the home while the occupants were away and set the fire. The home was a total loss and had to be torn down.

In a Sept. 4, 2012 fire at 181 79th St. S, a relative of the recently deceased occupant noticed someone had set a fire outside near an air conditioning unit. It appeared to have self-extinguished before causing much damage.

Several weeks later, on Oct. 16, a lawn worker discovered evidence of a fire on the screened porch at 199 79th St. S. Authorities believe the arsonist set the fire but it too failed to catch.

Police were called to a fourth fire Nov. 25 at 7949 Second Ave. S. Investigators determined someone intentionally set the fire from the inside while the owners were away. A corgi died in the blaze. The home was badly damaged and demolished last month.

Then twice this year the arsonist returned to the vacant home at 181 79th St. S, On Jan. 2 and Feb. 7, someone broke into the home and set items inside on fire, police said.

Since information about the fires began trickling out last year, police have said they believe they are connected. But they released few details about the incidents.

On Tuesday, police spokesman Mike Puetz said detectives also found graffiti at some of the fire scenes. In two of the cases — the first and fourth fires — Sowick had been given keys to take care of the residents' pets while they were on vacation, he said.

"Based on her background, based on her actions, we feel very strongly that she is our suspect," Puetz said.

Records show Sorick was released from jail Monday night in lieu of $10,000 bail.

Neighbors said Sowick is a shy young woman who moved to the neighborhood a few years ago. They said they often saw her and her mother, who is editor of the community newsletter, walking their dogs.

Paula Engel, who lives next to one of the now empty lots, said waking up to flames over and over has been tough.

"We've all wondered how could this happen in this neighborhood?" she said. "I can't imagine who else it could be at this point. ... Too many coincidences."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached a [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: A St. Petersburg couple's pet corgi was killed last year in an arson at 7949 Second Ave. S. A story Tuesday gave an incorrect address.

     
 
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