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Fire widens rift in Belleair Beach

Sometime after dark last Nov. 8, someone started a fire at Peter and Susan Mazzone's house on the Intracoastal Waterway.

No one was home the night of the fire.

Mazzone, a commercial airline pilot, and his wife, a flight attendant, had moved from the house at 1907 Bayshore Drive to a condominium on Sand Key while the house was undergoing renovations.

Although the one-story, concrete block home did not burn to the ground, there was considerable fire damage to one bedroom and smoke damage to the rest of the house, according to reports.

After an initial investigation by the Belleair Beach Police Department failed to turn up a culprit, the Mazzones became angry.

In letters to city officials and others, they accused the Police Department of botching the investigation and failing to conduct it in a timely matter.

They also said police officers wrongly accused them of setting fire.

In January, with Belleair Beach residents lining up on both sides of the issue, Mayor William Atteberry asked the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to conduct an internal affairs investigation into the way the Belleair Beach Police Department handled the arson investigation.

That investigation eventually cleared the local department of any wrongdoing. Investigators did say, however, that the case should have been turned over sooner to the state fire marshal.

Atteberry defended the department and its chief, "Midge" Heathcote, against the charges of tardiness.

"We never have arsons in Belleair Beach," Atteberry said. "So we didn't have any rules in place."

It is not unusual for Belleair Beach residents to pit themselves against their neighbors over local issues.

Most local elections find candidates lined up with one segment of the community or the other with only a few votes separating the winners from the losers. A recent election for mayor ended in a draw. The winner was selected in a drawing.

The city is split nearly in half on the issue of beach renourishment. One group wants to open the beach to the public so the city can qualify for free sand. The other group wants the beach to remain private. Council meetings often turn into shouting matches.

This year, the Mazzone case became the rallying cry for residents who would prefer to have police services provided by the Sheriff's Office.

Mazzone, however, stopped short of saying the department should be abolished. At a council work session last month, he called for the removal of Heathcote and Atteberry, who is Heathcote's supervisor.

"The mayor and police chief are obvious high ranking positions in any community," Mazzone said. "They should perform ethically, consciously and morally at all times. . . . We don't see these things happening here in Belleair Beach."

Mazzone said recently he hopes he can persuade Atteberry to resign "for the good of the city." And if Atteberry goes, Heathcote would likely follow because the mayor is the person charged with hiring and firing the police chief.

Atteberry, 53, said Friday that he is not about to resign. After more than 80 supporters turned out to cheer him on at a meeting of a recently organized committee called Citizens To Save Our City, Atteberry said he is more convinced than ever that Mazzone's claims against him and Heathcote have no merit.

Former council member Kaye Woolcott helped organize the committee after a resident spent more than an hour attacking Atteberry and Heathcote at a council meeting.

The resident, an elderly woman who backs Mazzone, said she has been harassed with threatening phone calls ever since she told Belleair Beach police about seeing cars on Bayshore Drive the night of the arson. The woman, who is not being identified because she is alleged to be a crime victim, says the police should have been able to locate the callers.

Woolcott said Citizens To Save Our City is drafting a petition supporting Atteberry and Heathcote. Residents who want to sign the petition can do so at City Hall from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

The committee also will draft a petition asking the City Council to limit people who address the council to 10 minutes at any one time, Woolcott said.