TAMPA — For 18 months, smoky skies and the smell of ash peppered the V. M. Ybor neighborhood.
Residents became familiar with the sounds of wailing sirens and the sight of flames spouting from rooftops.
Catching the people responsible for the series of more than two dozen arsons proved difficult for fire marshal investigators. There were few witnesses, and most of the evidence burned. Out of frustration, Mayor Pam Iorio turned the investigation over to the Police Department in June.
One month later, Tampa police said they've caught the man responsible for at least one of the fires that terrorized the community.
Kenneth B. Smith, 43, was charged with the Jan. 29 arson at 1412 E 21st Ave. and is a suspect in another four fires at the same location, Police Chief Jane Castor said. He is a suspect in a total of 13 fires, she said Friday.
Castor said Smith spoke with someone who knew him outside the house at 21st Avenue on Jan. 29. The witness walked away, and when he looked back he saw the house in flames, she said.
Smith was arrested Thursday in Chicago, where he waived an extradition hearing. He arrived in Tampa late Friday night and was being questioned.
Castor said he had family in the Midwestern city.
Smith was just "Kenny" to the workers at Master Construction and Pavement in Chicago.
He joined the outfit about three weeks ago and drove a pavement roller at jobs.
Most of the men who work there speak Spanish. Smith, who is fluent in the language, fit right in. He told co-workers he was Puerto Rican, co-worker George C. Davis said.
Smith wore blue work pants, a T-shirt and tennis shoes to work, just like the rest of the men, and he showed up every day.
"He's joyful," Davis said. "He's a happy-go-lucky guy."
Davis, 56, said Smith told jokes and stories about ex-girlfriends and also worked as a mechanic on the side, fixing his co-workers' cars for a couple extra dollars.
He smoked Marlboros.
On Thursday, Davis and Smith were at work about 7:30 a.m., waiting for others to show up to start the day, when about 15 armed law officers and a police dog swooped in and captured Smith.
"I was devastated," Davis said. "You'd be surprised who you're working next to."
Smith, who has been arrested nine times in Hillsborough County for traffic violations, had been under surveillance for a short time. When U.S. marshals approached Thursday, he hid behind a piece of heavy machinery, said Pete Cajigal of the U.S. Marshal Service.
Tampa police detectives Larry Brass and Raymon Estevez flew to Chicago that day and interviewed Smith. During questioning, he "made incriminating statements to the detectives,'' police said.
In early June, John Barracato, a former New York City deputy chief fire investigator, an Aetna insurance fire and fraud unit leader and the author of Arson, gave the Times a profile of what the arsonist may be like.
He said the arsonist would be a male who lives within the radius of the fires. Tampa police said Friday that Smith lived in the V.M. Ybor neighborhood, and Bay News 9 reports he had once lived in the E 21st Avenue duplex he's accused of burning.
Barracato also said the arsonist would likely be between the ages of 23 and 35 and work a menial job. Though older than the profile, Smith was unemployed at the time the fires were set, Castor said.
He's a loner who doesn't brag about his crimes. He seeks sexual gratification through his acts, Barracato said.
Castor said at a Friday news conference that police are unsure of Smith's motive.
Most of the houses in the arson string have been vacant, and the fires started with garbage and debris as the accelerant.
Castor said late last month that detectives believed more than one person was responsible and that an arrest was imminent.
Iorio first expressed public frustration on June 9 after another fire hit the neighborhood.
"It has just gone on too long, there have been too many arsons, and this case has to get solved, period," Iorio said.
Smith had been a "person of interest" since January, police said. Detectives didn't have enough evidence to arrest him until recently, Castor said.
Police discovered Smith had jumped bail on a charge of driving with a suspended license and fled to Chicago, where he has relatives.
Friday, neighbors were relieved to hear of the arrest.
Peterson Vilbrena, 14, said his mother leaves the back porch light on because she's scared of the arsonist.
Vilbrena lives next door to the dust tan duplex on E 21st Avenue that police suspect Smith set fire to five times. The windows remain boarded up, and the weeds have overtaken the grass in the small front yard.
"I thought it was gang or something like that (who started the fires)" the Madison Middle eighth-grader said.
Vilbrena said his mother was afraid to go to sleep with him and his five siblings sleeping next to a favorite target of the arsonist.
"We feel so much better," he said.
"This is taking a tremendous toll on the neighborhood,'' Iorio said Friday.
She thanked neighborhood activists for their work and patience in helping the city. She also thanked the Fire Department and state Fire Marshal's Office.
"Arsons are very difficult to investigate," Castor said. "A very integral part of solving these arsons is the community as well. I think this very good news for the neighborhood, and I think they can sleep much easier."
Times researcher Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.