Tampa neighborhood on edge as arsonist search continues

5:51 PM, Jan 7, 2013   |    comments
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Tampa, Florida -  When she woke to the sound of her children yelling, Willie Ruth Petterman could see and feel the fire raging next door.

"The flames were just shooting up through that house," she said.

Petterman was even more frightened to find out an arsonist had not only torched the house next door to her's, but two other vacant homes as well, all just minutes apart.

"That's very scary," said Petterman, "Someone going around setting houses on fire, you know?"

With all three homes only a few streets from each other, Tampa police set up a 10-block perimeter. Thick smoke billowing from the neighborhood could be easily seen by morning commuters along nearby I-275.

Another neighbor who posted home video of the blaze on Facebook says his dog wouldn't stop barking at what he now suspects was the arsonist in his back yard.

"I'm in the window telling him to be quiet, because I figure he's barking at the firemen in the back. Because he was barking the whole time; he had to be barking, because he'd seen the person in the yard over here," he said.

Tampa police say another witness has given them a vague description of a suspicious person at the scene.

A source also tells WTSP 10 News that a police cruiser dash-cam may have also captured images of that same person of interest, who is described as a tall, slender, Hispanic male, dressed in black and carrying a backpack.

"The witness saw one person, walking briskly away from the initial house fire," said Tampa Police Spokesperson Laura McElroy.

Fire investigators don't think neighbors have much to fear at this point. The suspect, they say, appears to have targeted specific, unoccupied homes, using some sort of fuel in each case.

Debra Sue Warshefski, a spokesperson for Tampa Fire-Rescue said, "It could be someone, you know, that wants to have attention. It could be someone for vindictiveness."

"Someone who's not familiar with the neighborhood, and is just coming through because they're disgruntled or something like that," added Milton Jenkins, a Tampa Fire Marshal. "That's why we're leaning more toward that," he said.

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