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Fires hit 'Suitcase City' // Several incidents in north Tampa called suspicious

Detectives are investigating a series of fires at empty apartments in a north Tampa community known for its inexpensive rental housing and transient residents. No one has been hurt in the fires, the latest of which gutted a vacant apartment at Oakwood Apartments, 1105 E 140th Ave., early Wednesday.

A security guard there heard glass breaking at 1:29 a.m., and a vacant apartment at the southeast corner of the complex was engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived a few minutes later, according to a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office report.

The fire caused approximately $15,000 in damage.

"In the last weeks we've had several, and it's getting us a little concerned," said sheriff's Detective Robert Beckner.

"There's somebody going around setting these things," said Hillsborough County Fire Department spokesman Raul Reyes.

Three other fires have occurred recently within a mile of the incident Wednesday. On Saturday, a man was seen running from a vacant apartment at the Americana Apartments, 2827 Skipper Road, moments before a neighbor noticed flames inside. The apartment was heavily damaged.

The night of Jan. 23, a suspicious fire damaged a different apartment at the complex. And on Jan. 9, fire caused heavy damage to an unoccupied apartment at the University Townhouse, 13717 La Mancha Court.

Investigators have labeled the fires suspicious, but no other details about the fires were available Wednesday from the state fire marshal.

"There's no way of telling which ones are related at this point," Beckner said. "It's too early to set a pattern."

In the past few months, at least a half-dozen similar fires have hit the community of apartment complexes and duplexes just west of the University of South Florida. The area, with its transient population, has acquired the nickname "Suitcase City."

Beckner said investigators are exploring a number of possible motives, from irate former tenants out for revenge to vagrants setting fires to keep warm.

Residents said they have learned to live with some crime in the area, including frequent car burglaries and vandalism.

"But this is scary," said Joan Bennett, who lives in the Americana Apartments. "Especially the thought that they might be deliberately set."

"We come from New York - I didn't expect the crime here," said Ellen Petra, who lives in the building at the Americana Apartments where the fire was set. "I thought it was more secure.

"Now, I'm afraid," she said. "The apartment next to me and the apartment underneath are both empty."

Others said such incidents are the price paid for living in a fast-moving area where rent is inexpensive.

"I don't want a fire here. I can't afford it," said Doug Bell, a college student living at the Oakwood Apartments. "But if I was really scared, I wouldn't have moved into this neighborhood to begin with."

The managers of all three apartment complexes declined to comment Wednesday on the fires.