TAMPA — Mayor Pam Iorio has apologized for the city's slowness in solving a string of arsons that have haunted an Ybor City neighborhood for the past 18 months, and police said Wednesday they are now near an arrest.
In an e-mail sent last week to the head of an Ybor neighborhood association, Iorio said there have been lapses.
"The investigations and follow through on the many arsons that have plagued your neighborhood have not been handled with the sense of urgency and coordination that I expected," she wrote. "Please accept my apology. Please know that I have now redirected our resources, placed emphasis on this issue with both Fire and Police and am now satisfied that all is being done to catch those responsible for these crimes."
The Tampa Police Department — rather than the Fire Department — started leading the investigation about two weeks ago when Iorio put police Chief Jane Castor in charge.
Castor said detectives now believe more than one person has been setting the fires and have several suspects.
Nearly two dozen fires, mostly of vacant houses, have been set in and around the V.M. Ybor neighborhood, putting neighbors on edge and seeking action.
"We hope the arrest sends a strong message," Castor said. "We have our best detectives on these cases."
Iorio said city fire investigators had not put enough effort into investigating the fires, but added she is not blaming anyone else for the deficiencies.
"I take responsibility for this," she said Wednesday. "It went on for far too long without a clear direction or enough resources."
Several weeks ago, Iorio was briefed on the investigation's progress and decided to hand Castor the reins.
"The fact is, this has to be job No. 1," she said. "You can't have that many unexplained fires."
The Tampa Fire Marshal's Office works under the Tampa Fire Rescue Department, and its spokesman, Bill Wade, said he had no comment on the change.
"The investigators have been out in the field all hours of the days and night, talking to the community, trying to garner information from the community, and trying to identify who might be doing this rash of arsons," Wade said.
State fire marshal Capt. Brandon Ball simply said: "The Florida State Fire Marshal's Office is still a very active participant in the Y.M. Ybor investigation with Tampa police and fire rescue."
He would not confirm if the agency still has two full-time investigators on the case.
The string of fires started in January 2009, but fire investigators didn't announce the trend until December 2009. Since then, Tampa Fire Rescue and the state fire marshal have been tight-lipped.
Wednesday's statements from police are the first revelations in months. Fire investigators have refused to discuss any suspects or their investigation methods.
V.M. Ybor residents were exasperated with the lack of progress.
Kim Headland, president of the V.M. Ybor Neighborhood Association, laid out complaints in an e-mail to Iorio last week, including:
• The community didn't learn about the problem for a year after the fires started. "This is time that residents could have been aggressively reporting suspicious people, open structures, illegal dumping/accumulations, etc. — if we knew what we should be looking for," she wrote.
• Residents who lived less than a block from the recent fires were never asked by investigators to provide leads on who was in the area leading up to the fires.
• Surveillance cameras were requested in December, but still haven't been installed.
Iorio met Monday with neighborhood leaders, along with Castor and Tampa Fire Marshal Russell Spicola. At the meeting, Iorio said Castor will lead the investigation and continue to coordinate with the fire investigators and state officials.
Castor said it is a natural move for police to investigate these fires because arson is a crime. She said two detectives will work on the case full time.
"We're out there in that community every day, dealing with the people there," she said. "Our goal is to stop these fires before someone is injured."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.