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Arsonist burned Ybor homes because he was tired of homeless not paying rent, police say

TAMPA — A 57-year-old disabled man told authorities he torched two V.M. Ybor homes Saturday because he was tired of homeless people living rent-free.

Reginald Gray, 2909 E 23rd Ave., is facing charges in those two fires only, but investigators said Tuesday they believe he is linked to five more in a string of fires that afflicted the area for 18 months.

Gray was charged with two counts of first-degree arson in the blazes on E Columbus Drive and was held without bail in a Hillsborough County jail.

A business' surveillance video had captured him as he emerged with his walker from the rear of a home at 1713 E Columbus Drive, which is a little more than a mile from his residence, investigators said.

The video showed smoke coming from the vacant home, owned by a real estate company, right before it went up in flames and spread next door to another vacant home.

Gray told police he didn't think it was fair that he had to pay rent while homeless people staying in vacant homes did not.

He said he burned homes not to hurt occupants, said Detective Ray Estevez, but "to keep them out."

One twist: Gray had been homeless in recent years, officials said.

At a news conference Tuesday, police and fire investigators said Gray is linked to five other Ybor City area fires in 2009 and 2010.

Authorities said they have not made a connection between Gray and Kenneth Bryan Smith, whom they arrested in July for arson in V.M. Ybor.

On Tuesday, investigators said Smith, 44, was a suspect in 13 other V.M. Ybor fires.

The V.M. Ybor neighborhood had experienced an 18-month string of fires at vacant homes, leaving residents on edge.

The fires stopped after Smith's arrest, and authorities said they thought the string was over. Then came Saturday.

But authorities say they don't expect to make any other arrests in the Ybor area fires.

No other suspects are being sought, said Al Alcala, supervisor of investigations for the city fire marshal.

Gray has been arrested 53 times over the last 40 years on charges including burglary, cocaine possession and illegal possession of a shopping cart, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

But he also was on investigators' radar during the Ybor area fires.

A tipster last year identified him as a suspect in at least one of the unsolved arson cases.

Officials said the witness stopped cooperating out of fear of retribution, and they were already homing in on Smith as their primary suspect.

Plus, Gray was living in a nursing home at the time.

"There was a lot going on," said Estevez.

Gray does not work and receives disability payments, Alcala said. He said Gray most recently lived with a legal guardian.

Officials credited the quick arrest after Saturday's fires with its merger of the Fire Rescue's arson team and the Police Department's homicide squad.

The joint team has handled 36 arson cases since its creation in January. Twenty have been cleared.

"Without this combined effort, we probably wouldn't have gotten this done," said city Fire Marshal Russell Spicola.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who attended the news conference, said it was a good day for the neighborhood.

"It is a very bad day for the knucklehead who chose to light these fires," he said.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3374.

Arsonist burned Ybor homes because he was tired of homeless not paying rent, police say 05/24/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 1:03am]

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