TAMPA — A serial arsonist who has set more than 20 house fires and continues to fan a community's fears remains faceless to fire investigators.
People who live in the V.M. Ybor neighborhood built for cigar factory workers 100 years ago keep a wary eye on strangers and neighbors. Some, like Oscar Gutierrez, whose lawn mower repair shop sits next to a house torched five times in three months, spends his spare time on a bench outside his service station, staring out in suspicion.
"I'm keeping my eyes open," said Gutierrez, 85. "If they burn this, what am I going to do?"
Residents in the east Ybor neighborhood talk about whether this is the work of teens, copycats, homeowners looking for insurance money or people parachuting from foreclosures.
"One main guy doing it for the thrill," guesses Danielle Fisher, 29, who lives in V.M. Ybor. "A pyromaniac up in here."
A task force of Tampa fire investigators, police, prosecutors, state investigators and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents is thinking along the same lines.
Investigators say the fires don't appear to be financially motivated since the homes hit are owned separately and no insurance payouts have been issued.
The firebug who has evaded them for 16 months is a compulsive arsonist with a mix of street smarts and cruel indifference, and his fires are growing more dangerous, investigators say. The latest blaze, set May 23, injured two firefighters.
"This person just fits into the neighborhood so well, neighbors don't notice anything unusual," Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Bill Wade said. "The individual or individuals have shown that a fire can be set at any hour of the day or night, and no one on the street sees them, sees the act, sees the person walking away."
Investigators went door to door again last week, sometimes until 2 a.m., looking for tips. Nothing panned out, Wade said.
The fire marshal has called the fires crimes of opportunity since garbage or debris was used for fuel. The fires were set inside vacant homes that were easy to enter, or they were set on the outside. Gasoline, lighter fuel or other accelerants don't seem to have been used except in a March 17 case where lab results are pending.
Investigators declined to release a composite of a possible suspect, saying they are reviewing every lead and motive. But John Barracato, a former New York City deputy chief fire investigator, an Aetna insurance fire and fraud unit leader and the author of Arson, says the facts tell him some things.
He thinks the arsonist is a male who lives within the radius of the fires. Because many originated after midnight, the arsonist is probably between the ages of 23 and 35. He works a menial job and probably comes from a single-parent home with no male figure. He's a loner who doesn't brag about his crimes. He seeks sexual gratification through his acts, Barracato said.
Arsonists rarely work in groups, he said.
"The fire is like a female to them — they actually get off on the fire — and that's why they progress to a bigger fire," said Barracato, 77. "This sounds like a pathological fire starter or a pyromaniac. These fires are going to get worse."
The arsonist most likely stayed close enough to watch the homes burn, Barracato said.
Tampa Fire Rescue declined to comment on Barracato's composite, though Wade calls his conclusions "very good observations."
The wave of arson began Jan. 11, 2009, when the upstairs of 2926 N 21st St. went up in flames just before midnight with people inside. The next fire came a month later, four blocks away, when another occupied home was torched, this time in the afternoon.
The latest came two months after the previous one, spreading from a house to a next-door office on E 17th Avenue.
Two firefighters suffered heat exhaustion and a back injury, making it three firefighters injured in the fires. All the fires have taken place in a depressed 3-mile area where the per-capita income is below half of the city average.
Court records show that more than half of the homes struck by arson appear to be in foreclosure, and scores of boarded-up homes dot the V.M. Ybor neighborhood.
Median sales prices there decreased a startling 76 percent in 2009, a rate more than three times the overall decrease in the county.
"We have not seen any neighborhoods in that type of decline," says Tim Wilmath, director of valuation for the Hillsborough property appraiser. "When I saw that 76 percent, that was a stunner."
The average sales price in the neighborhood this year is $30,250, down from a 2007 high of $153,950.
Studies indicate that most fire-related crimes are committed for vandalism, then excitement, then revenge. Excitement and vandalism drive juveniles, while adults start fires for revenge or to conceal crimes. Most offenders are male. Alcohol and drugs appear to embolden criminals, who usually live close to the crime scene.
Joel Dvoskin, a University of Arizona forensic psychologist who specializes in the study and prevention of violence, cautions against putting too much faith in arsonist profiles.
"Generalizing from that is really dangerous," Dvoskin said. "We only know about the ones we know about, and they all got caught. The vast majority of arsonists don't get caught."
Arsonists are hard to catch. Evidence gets burned up. Only sophisticated arsonists use some sort of "signature" method. Otherwise, he said, most are impulsive.
"These people get caught from old-fashioned, don't-get-much-sleep investigations," he said.