Alton Beasley was unclothed, police said, hunched in the dark behind the Acropolis Greek Taverna in Ybor City, trying to set fire to the building.
A manager at the Seventh Avenue restaurant smelled smoke about 3 a.m. Saturday, walked outside and, according to a police report, saw the homeless man holding a flaming cardboard box near the back door.
Police arrested Beasley on a single charge of arson, and fire officials now wonder if the 41-year-old man with a criminal record could have also started the Nov. 26 blaze that ruined a historic building three blocks away.
"Investigators will look into this man to see where he was a week ago," said Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Bill Wade. "We've got two separate fires. Whether there's any connection between the two, that (determination) hasn't been made."
Wade said investigators think the fire that destroyed the two-story building at 2201 E Seventh Ave., which was built in 1916, was started on purpose in an unused upstairs room.
He said investigators would likely question Beasley further on Saturday afternoon. He was being held at Orient Road Jail without bail.
According to jail records, Beasley has been arrested four times since July on trespassing charges.
Acropolis Greek Taverna was not damaged. The manager who caught Beasley doused the flaming box with a bucket of water, Wade said. He also held Beasley until police arrived.
As for motive, Wade said Beasley was known to ask for handouts at the restaurant, and he was often denied.
Russell Woodring, 52, a homeless man who panhandles around Ybor, said Beasley often appeared disoriented.
Wade said he did not know why Beasley was unclothed.
There are several reasons people commit arson, he said, such as revenge or financial gain. "And people sometimes have mental problems and they just like to see things burn."
Ben Montgomery can be reached at email@example.com or 813-661-2443.