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Officials unite in arsonist search

State and local officials have joined forces to stamp out what appear to be a fire bug's efforts to set vacant apartments ablaze in a north Tampa community. Officials from the state Fire Marshal's Office and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office met Monday to begin looking for connections among the more than half-dozen fires that have been set in "Suitcase City," said Mark Sauls, an investigator with the fire marshal's office.

"If there is a pattern, then that's going to be half the battle," Sauls said.

The latest fire gutted a vacant apartment Friday night at Americana Apartments. It was the second vacant-apartment fire in a week at the complex, which has 70 vacant apartments, said manager Debbie Williams.

Nevertheless, apartment complex managers in the area say they are trying to be calm about the recent fires.

Rae Harrison, manager of Springfield Village Apartments at 12401 15th St. N, said she is not worried the arsonists will strike her complex _ despite the fact that she has a number of vacancies.

Wendy Schambers, manager of Summerwind Apartments at 1307 127th Ave. E, said she also has a large number of vacant apartments.

Though the complex has been the target of vandals and vagrants who break into the empty apartments for a place to sleep, she said she doubts the fires will spread to Summerwind.

"Anything can happen," she said, "but I'm not worried."

Investigators are, however. Bill Martinez, a state fire marshal, said his office is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the arsonist.

Deputies and fire marshals also will be canvassing the neighborhood for witnesses who might know something about the fires.

Investigators say they are frustrated with the lack of clues. Although most of the fires were started with a flammable liquid in a kitchen, only one witness at Americana has seen a possible suspect.Even that description was sketchy.

No one else has come forward with information, Sauls said.

"It's like when you see those movies where the guy is getting beat up, and there are no cars and there is nobody walking around," Martinez said. "That's what's happening here. Nobody sees anything."

Anyone with information should call Martinez at 272-3985 or Hillsborough Sheriff's deputy Bob Beckner at 247-8690.

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