TAMPA — Ever since a police officer woke them at 3 a.m., pulled everyone outside amid the smoke and flames and asked if they had any enemies, the tenants at 1206 E 18th Ave. sleep in unease.
"Now we lock our doors with chains," said Jaileen Ocasio, 17. "We have bats in the corner of our house."
In May, Ocasio and her roommates were asleep when their backyard shed erupted in flames. Mattresses, tools and furniture burned, but the fire also left their sense of security in ashes.
It's a fear that has spread all over the V.M. Ybor and East Ybor neighborhoods, where arson is suspected in at least 18 homes since last January. The crimes picked up as the year wound down, with at least seven coming in November and December. A 19th house fire on Dec. 15 remains under investigation and hasn't been linked to the others.
The numbers are a microcosm of what's going on in Tampa Bay. According to early FBI statistics for the first half of 2009, arson cases in Tampa increased 41 percent, from 59 to 83, and 59 percent in St. Petersburg, from 34 to 54.
Nationwide, the number of arson cases decreased 8.2 percent overall.
All but four of the Ybor homes hit were vacant, and most of the fires occurred north of Interstate 4. Fire officials have no leads, but they have formed an arson task force with police and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officers, and increased patrols nightly.
The fires all seem to have been set outside the homes using mattresses, newspapers, clothing and whatever arsonists could find nearby, said Al Alcala, the lead fire investigator.
Orange "Vacant House" stickers, condemnation notices and "Arson Reward" posters are plastered on charred homes on almost every block in the neighborhoods, which are full of one-story shotgun-style homes built shoulder to shoulder as housing for cigar workers in the early 20th century.
Jonathan Paradizo, 26, looked down his block from the corner of 12th Street and 19th Avenue and pointed toward house after house that had been hit.
"There's one, two, three, four," Paradizo said. "It's bad around here. Every week, it's another house."
Paradizo has lived in Ybor for 11 years. When he moved in, he said, the neighborhood seemed to be on the rise until the economy crashed. Now crime has spread again. Six houses down, he said, a car drove up and threw a gunshot victim out on his cousin's lawn.
The fires have prompted Paradizo to install security cameras around his house, which already has white burglar bars enclosing his front porch.
"We don't know who it is, and … we hope our house doesn't catch on fire," he said.
All around, neighbors wonder who the fire setter might be. Is it someone with nothing better to do? Does someone want to devalue the blocks to make redevelopment easier? Maybe homeowners are trying to bail out of upside-down mortgages?
The majority of homes hit by arson were bought between 2005 and 2008 at a price far exceeding recession-depressed market values. The average value of the homes hit is $95,902. The average purchase price is $126,829, according to property records.
"It didn't work out very well for me. That's why I say I don't know what a person has to gain by burning down the house," said William Stryffeler, a 28-year-old Tampa student who owns at 2208 E 15th Ave. "I'm trying to work out something with the mortgage company, but there is still a mortgage."
Stryffeler bought his two-story, 2,600-square-foot house in 2005 for $135,000, hoping to fix it up. But the project was more than he could handle, and he left the home boarded up for years. When the economy crashed, he was unable to make payments, and the house went into foreclosure proceedings. Of the 14 addresses hit by arson, seven of them appear in court documents that list them in foreclosure or pending foreclosure.
After Stryffeler's home burned down in June, the city condemned it, and he said he had to pay several thousand dollars to demolish it because his mortgage company's insurance wouldn't cover the entire cost.
Historically, arson has been a way out for distressed property owners and a way in for large-scale construction projects.
In Ybor City, it comes in waves.
In the 1940s or 1950s, there was a man in the neighborhood known as the "fire man" who would torch your house and business and send your debts up in a pile of smoke.
Copeland More, a fourth-generation owner of the La Segunda Central Bakery, heard that story recently from his uncle. It seemed like the appropriate tale to tell, given what has been going on lately all around the 95-year-old Cuban bread and sweets factory on N 15th Street.
In the 1970s, a wave of unsolved fires seemed to blight rows of homes in the same areas. Interstate expansion followed the flames, fanning rumors that the fires had paved the way for the road construction, recalled Roosevelt Lawrence, 75, who has lived at the corner of 15th Avenue and 17th Street since 1959.
In 1999 and 2000, more than 40 suspicious fires were reported in about a 3-mile area that included Tampa Heights and Ybor City. At least half were ruled to be clear-cut arson. Alcala, who investigated the cases, said many of the homes were owned by Tampa nonprofits that were later embroiled in a city housing scandal.
The cases stopped in June 2000, after police arrested Calvin Reed, a man who had served prison time for manslaughter. He was seen hurrying away on a bicycle from a burning house at 312 E Seventh Ave.
In 2001, a jury convicted Reed, a felon, of carrying a firearm that was found on him as he sped away. Alcala said Reed remains the prime suspect in many of the 2000 arson cases but was never charged. (Authorities say he's not a suspect in the current cases.)
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]