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Transient hurt in blaze dies

One of four people severely burned in a suspicious fire at an apartment building died Monday as investigators tried to determine whether the building was used illegally as a boarding house.

Harold James Hollen, 47, reportedly was visiting friends at 237 Seventh Ave. N on Sunday when the fire spread quickly throughout the two-story building. Police listed him as a transient who had no permanent address.

Hollen was taken to Tampa General Hospital's burn unit, where he died about noon Monday.

Two other people _ Cora Jean Tyler and John Edward Powell _ remained in critical condition at Tampa General. Tyler, 48, has second- and third-degree burns over 25 percent of her body. Powell, 59, has similar burns over 15 percent of his body.

Anthony Cale, 56, suffered first-degree burns. He was listed in serious condition Monday at Bayfront Medical Center.

The four were in the building when the fire was reported about 6 p.m. Sunday. Neighbors said flames shot first from the front porch, but spread throughout the frame building within minutes.

Fire Lt. Tom Young, the deputy fire marshal, said investigators found at least six areas where an fire accelerant had been used. There were two spots on the porch, two inside the door, one near the staircase and another on the landing. The building was destroyed in the blaze. Arson detectives were trying to determine Monday whether the fire was started by a tenant of the building or someone else. After Hollen's death Monday, the case also became a murder investigation.

The building, valued at $42,200, has had a troubled history with city officials. Next week, owner Joseph Del Grosso was scheduled to appear before the code enforcement board to answer repeated complaints about tenants having no heat, exposed wiring, plumbing leaks and fire-code violations. Del Grosso, 74, who previously has faced criminal charges for accumulated trash on property he owns, could not be reached for comment Monday.

More than 10 pages of city records dating back to 1993 show the building has been cited for having a rotted porch, broken windows and rubbish throughout the property. The living room walls had large holes in them, and the roof was questionable.

It is an apartment house neighbors have come to despise. A pig reportedly was living there with a tenant, and police have gone to the building nearly 20 times since October 1996 to investigate batteries, thefts or trouble with individuals. At one point, the building was used as a halfway house. The owners paid a psychologist $50 a week to go in and talk to the tenants, many of whom were alcoholics.

But the owners sought a certificate of occupancy in 1993, saying the building would be used by no more than two families or no more than six people. Only two apartments and two rooms would be rented out.

By changing the status of the building, the owners were not required to follow strict codes for boarding houses, such as installing fire sprinklers, said Fire Marshal Jim Large.

City officials said Monday they are investigating whether the house has been used illegally as a boarding house and whether too many people were living there at the time of the fire.

Fire inspectors also are looking at two other buildings with reported connections to the owner. One, around the corner at 715 Eighth St. N, was burned in a suspicious fire on Friday. "It's certainly a connection we would have to scrutinize very closely," Large said.