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Published: Friday, 6/25/2010

City beefs up reward to find fire-starters

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Robert Vander Horst's home on Wasaon Street caught fire last month after an arsonist set fire to a vacant house next door. Robert Vander Horst's home on Wasaon Street caught fire last month after an arsonist set fire to a vacant house next door.
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With arsons up dramatically over last year, the Toledo Fire Department is increasing its efforts to catch people who set those blazes and offering more money to tipsters who help catch the criminals.

"All you have to do is read the paper and you see how many fires there are out there," said Deputy Fire Chief Phillip Cervantes. "It is putting a strain on our department and arson is up 37 percent over last year."

Chief Cervantes said arson is "one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute" because of a lack of evidence and witnesses.

For that reason, the city is offering through its Crimestoppers program a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of an arsonist.

Addresses being investigated by the Toledo Fire and Rescue Investigative Unit include 1601 Navarre Ave., 267 Sumner St., 254 and 258 Wasaon St., 1570 Tecumseh St., 532 South Ave., 3019 Ontario St., 2214 Chase St., 861 McKinley Drive., 3345 Glenwood Ave., 531 Potter St., 956 Forsyth St., 1101 Norwood Ave., 1131 Fernwood Ave., 27 Streicher St., 421 Oak St., and 527 Walden Ave.

Chief Cervantes said the maximum $10,000 reward comes from several sources and does not include any city taxpayer money.

The reward is essentially a doubling of the money usually handed out for a successful Crimestoppers tip. The number is 419-255-1111.

Toledo last year led Ohio's six largest cities with the most arsons per capita, according to federal statistics released yesterday.

Toledo police reported 510 arsons last year, which is 175 arsons per 100,000 people. The statewide average is 96.6 arsons per 100,000 people.

The city was also the only city to post an increase in arsons from 2008, as intentionally set fires rose by 14 percent, according to the FBI's data from the Toledo Police Department. The crime fell in all other cities except possibly Cincinnati, which did not submit arson data to the FBI.

Vacant homes represent a significant percentage of the city's arsons, Toledo Fire Chief Mike Wolever said.

About 60.6 percent of the 249 vacant house fires last year were arsons, according to records from the Toledo Fire Department that were not included in the FBI report.

Only 16.3 percent of the 141 vacant house fires in 2001 were arson.

Chief Cervantes said he hopes witnesses will step forward and said that they can remain anonymous.

Vacant house fires can be particularly dangerous because the homes often have holes in the floors and have lost supporting walls.

But even if a home is known to be abandoned, firefighters still search for people who could be trapped inside.

"These fires are a danger to citizens and they are a danger to firefighters," Chief Cervantes said.

An occupied home at 254 Wasaon was destroyed by fire April 24 when a blaze spread from a vacant house next door.

The owner of the home, Robert Vander Horst, told The Blade in May that he wanted answers about the fire.

"I just want to know: What type of person goes into a house next door to a place with little kids' cars and toys? What kind of person sets a fire with kids an arm's span away? You could kill a kid," Mr. Vander Horst said.

Mr. Vander Horst's girlfriend, Heather Fry, said she had complained to the city's Department of Neighborhoods for months about the dilapidated, empty house next door at 258 Wasaon. The city sent a crew to mow the grass, but the vacant house was never boarded up.

Less than two miles away, also during April, firefighters battled suspected arson blazes set at the houses on Tecumseh and Sumner streets that the fire department is now seeking help in solving.

Both homes were demolished by city crews.

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.



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