Arson fires burn homes

February 20, 2009
By

John Ruch


Photo Courtesy Merlin Southwick A state Fire Marshal investigates the scene shortly after a Feb. 7 arson blaze at a condo at 20-22 1/2 Sigourney St.

Burning tires used in late-night blazes

Three recent late-night house fires in Jamaica Plain were cases of arson, the Gazette has learned from residents who said they were lucky to wake up before the fires spread.

Two of the fires were caused by burning automobile tires placed against the houses’ front doors, residents and other knowledgeable sources told the Gazette. That is the same method reportedly used in last month’s arson at Maria’s Hair Fashion on South Street, as the Gazette first revealed.

A condo complex at 2-22 ½ Sigourney St. next to Franklin Park was the scene of two of the fires—one in December and a more serious one on Feb. 7. The condo association there has been in a long dispute with the owner of an affordable unit who is violating a purchase agreement by not actually living there, according to city officials. The disputed unit was damaged in the most recent fire.

One of the grounds for the dispute was yet another small fire set inside a common area of the condo building a few years ago, attorney Mark Rosen, who represents the condo association, told the Gazette.

Local developer Chris DeSisto, who built the four-building Sigourney Street complex and has been hired by the condo association to repair it, told the Gazette that security cameras filmed the arsonist in the act on Feb. 7.

“They actually caught [images of] the arsonist setting the tires on fire,” DeSisto said he was told in a meeting with residents and insurance adjustors. “[The footage shows] somebody with a couple aborted attempts trying to light three tires on fire.”

The third fire was on Jan. 28 at 111 School St. in Egleston Square. Homeowner Rafael Hernandez told the Gazette that he has no idea why someone would burn his home of 30 years.

Hernandez said he was lucky to be woken up by strange noises around 3 a.m. that night.

“I heard two slaps,” he said. “Something slapped the house. I said, ‘It’s really snowing.’ I look out the window, and it’s all bright red out.”

Arson investigators later told him that a burning car tire was the cause of the fire, which ruined his home, he said.

“It was a car vehicle tire,” Hernandez said. “They put it against the door and ignite[d] it with gasoline and lit it on fire.”

He added that arson investigators confirmed to him that the recent Maria’s fire—the third arson blaze to hit various locations of that business—involved burning car tires.

Hernandez, an emergency medical technician, said he learned from his police officer brother that arson investigators are looking into possible similar fires on Washington Street in Roslindale and on Walk Hill Street in Mattapan.

Boston Fire Department (BFD) spokesperson Steve MacDonald would only confirm that a Dec. 11 fire at 12 Sigourney St. was an arson. The other JP fires are “under investigation,” he said.

But, MacDonald added, BFD investigators “do know how the fires started. They know the method and all that.”

He described the Mattapan and Roslindale fires as also “under investigation.” There is no current public information that indicates a direct connection or similar method to the JP fires.

Hernandez said he wants the public to be aware of arsonists possibly roaming the neighborhood. He also pointed to the wave of unsolved business arsons in JP in 2005-06 that affected several residents as well. Those arsons did not involve any reports of burning tires and have no apparent connections to the recent house fires.

Sigourney Street

When DeSisto won approval to build the Sigourney Street condos in 2002, it was seen as an improvement to a long-blighted site. In the 1980s, a failed and abandoned prior housing development on the site burned in a suspicious fire.

“It’s kind of an eerie history,” said neighbor Merlin Southwick, who spent the night of the 1980s fire on his roof with a hose, fighting off sparks, and who witnessed the Feb. 7 fire as well.

By 2004, several condo association members were in a dispute with Desiree A. Axson, who reportedly is now known as Desiree Davis following her marriage. Axson purchased 22 ½ Sigourney St. Unit D, which was sold to her by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) at a below-market price under a city affordable housing program. One of the conditions of the sale was that Axson live in the unit.

But, Rosen said, the condo association eventually realized that Axson did not live there and instead was renting the unit to someone Rosen identified as Pamala Morris. The BRA long maintained that Axson provided proper proof of residency, including a 2004 affidavit on file at the Suffolk County Registry of Deeds. But the BRA is now forcing Axson to sell the unit or get sued, according to an official letter provided to the Gazette by the BRA’s press office.

Axson did not respond to a Gazette e-mail sent to an address provided by the BRA, and the Gazette was unable to locate her for comment. The BRA’s only known address for Axson is the Sigourney Street condo, which is now vacant and “uninhabitable” from smoke and water damage, according to Rosen.

Morris is listed in a police report obtained by the Gazette as a resident of 22 ½ Sigourney St. and a victim of the recent fire. The report says Morris was awakened by a smoke detector and fled. The Gazette was unable to locate Morris.

Rosen said the condo association became aware of someone else living in the unit because of “problems” with the resident. He said those problems included noise—and a previous fire.

“There was a trunk of clothes set on fire a few years ago, two or three years ago,” Rosen said, explaining that it was in the condo building’s common area. “That was unsettling.”

Residents at the condo complex mostly did not respond or declined to speak on the record to the Gazette, citing the ongoing investigation. But, one resident told the Gazette, there is a feeling that arsons are related to the dispute about the unit.

The first of the recent arsons at the condo complex was on Dec. 11 at 12 Sigourney—a different building from the one containing the affordable unit. “I understand there was a Molotov cocktail-type projectile thrown onto one of the trustee’s decks” in that incident, DeSisto said. It appears that fire did little damage.

The condo association began threatening legal action amid fears about the Dec. 11 arson. Fox 25 WFXT News broadcast a report in January about the unit controversy. Meanwhile, BRA officials met with residents and Rosen. On Feb. 4, the BRA issued its letter ordering Axson to sell the unit.

On Feb. 7 came the next, more serious arson fire at the complex. That fire burned the front of the building at 22-22 ½ Sigourney, which includes the affordable unit. MacDonald said it did an estimated $40,000 in damage.

“We were awakened a little before 5 [a.m.] and we heard blood-curdling screaming with somebody laying on a car horn,” said Merlin Southwick, the neighbor. He said he and wife Betty went outside to see the front of the condo building in flames.

Southwick said he and his wife were interviewed by arson investigators. “They seemed very willing to tell us they had already determined it was arson,” he said, adding that investigators were placing evidence into sealed cans.

One resident of the condo complex told the Gazette that burning tires were used to start the blaze. Rosen confirmed DeSisto’s account that security camera installed after the December arson captured footage of the blaze. He said arson investigators have that footage.

Like most of DeSisto’s projects, the condo complex involved a lot of custom design and materials. That’s why he has been brought back to fix the fire damage. He said it likely will take at least several months.

“It’s not a Home Depot restoration,” he said.

“I guess in some ways they’re lucky. Someone could have got killed,” DeSisto said. “I feel bad for the folks that have to endure that.”

School Street

The Jan. 28 fire at 111 School St. did much more damage than those at Sigourney Street. The two-alarm fire did an estimated $300,000 in damage, left one firefighter with a minor injury and made the house uninhabitable for 12 to 18 months, according to BFD and Hernandez.

“I have no idea,” Hernandez said when asked why someone would burn his house. He shared the two-family house with his son, his mother and two first-floor tenants he described as a quiet, middle-aged couple.

For now, Hernandez said, he can only follow the speculation he has heard from the BFD and Boston Police. “The Fire Department told me that’s how they did Maria’s this time,” he said, referring to the use of tires as an arson device. As the Gazette previously reported, local business owner Fred Ciampa, who first called in the Maria’s blaze, said he saw what appeared to be burning tires in the front of the store.

Hernandez said he recently visited the Sigourney Street condo complex to talk with residents and see if there were any possible connections with his fire. He said his feeling is that if arson happened to him, “It could happen to anyone else.”

Sandra Storey contributed to this article.