A fire in June at a vacant house at 2143 Elliot Avenue near Ottawa Park in the central city was ruled deliberately set. Assistant Fire Chief Phil Cervantes says solving arson cases is difficult.
After what seemed to be an outbreak of arsons in vacant East Toledo homes, the fires are spreading to other neighborhoods while the east side, at least for now, gets a break.
When arsons receive media attention, arsonists will "cool their heels and there will be a lull in action," said Assistant Fire Chief Phil Cervantes. The department will "chase them from one neck of the woods to another."
Although the Toledo Fire Department has received fewer structure-fire calls to the east side, there's hardly a lull in activity.
"Each part of town has their own little issues going on," Chief Cervantes said. "It's never stopped and it's not going to. It's the same it's been in my 27 years."
The department is receiving more service calls in Toledo's south end, but calls could possibly switch to another area of the city.
"It's very frustrating," the chief said. "When we finally get an arrest and make something stick, it's kind of a special event for us, but for every one we're able to arrest and take through the court systems and maybe get a conviction, there's a whole bunch out there that we can't do anything with. We don't know what caused it. We can't prove it. It's a frustrating thing."
Last summer, tracking and having an idea of where a fire might pop up next was a little easier. Fires were occurring in patterns and investigators could plot locations and trace them to get a sense of what was going on. This year, investigators aren't seeing any patterns, which makes the cases harder to crack.
"Arsons are very weird animals," the chief said. "We'll go out and canvass neighborhoods and a lot of times it's somebody who knows somebody who met somebody.
"When we start getting a number of fires in a certain area, one of the things we do is start sending arson guys into that area and, trust me, locals know when undercover police and arson guys are going through," Chief Cervantes said.
Since July 26, including one fire Tuesday, the department has responded to nine arsons.
Since the beginning of the year, the arson unit has been called out to nearly 300 fires, compared with 488 in 2010, Chief Cervantes said.
"We're pretty much on pace for what last year seems to be," he said.
More specifically, from January through July, 2010, the fire department has 75 known "suspicious" fires on file. This year, through July, the department has recorded 63 known suspicious fires, or those that remain under investigation.
A suspicious fire doesn't necessarily mean arson, Chief Cervantes said. It could have been accidentally or intentionally set -- "suspicious" simply means that fire crews showed up to the fire and were unable to determine its origin, he said.
Chief Cervantes said in many of these cases, fire has damaged the house to the point that conducting a full investigation is unsafe.
"I'm sure there are a lot more out there that are arsons that we can't determine," he said. "I just don't have what I need to definitively say it's an arson fire. I know it is from experience. I know what I'm looking at or what I'm reading is an arson fire, but if the house fell down or we had to tear it down, we've got to list it as 'undetermined'."
Arson cases are difficult for investigators to solve, the chief said. He added that Toledo has one of the highest convictions rates for arson cases in the country -- about 8 percent -- which is still low, the chief said.
One suspect, Joshua Havermale, 18, of 501 Potter St., was charged with setting fire to two vacant properties in East Toledo. He was indicted by a Lucas County grand jury Monday on one count of arson.
Mr. Havermale was arrested after he allegedly bragged to people at the scene of a fire that he started the blaze. Investigators rarely get that lucky.
"A lot of times our evidence burns up in the fire," he said. "It's a very difficult nut to crack. … When we piece together an arson, it's not like a murder. A lot of the fires happen in the middle of the night and there aren't a lot of people around.
"People light a fire and you don't hear that 'bang.' There's nothing that gives the indication that someone is starting a fire until it's fully involved," Chief Cervantes said.
Contact Taylor Dungjen at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6054.
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