Update: Red truck damaged in latest Historic District fire

spedersen@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 7, 2013 

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said Columbus police are looking for two white males in connection with another downtown car fire that happened Saturday evening.

She said the car fire happened in the Uptown Historic District, the 500 block of Front Avenue around 10:38 p.m.

Lt. Steve Cox said on Sunday that the males, who appeared to be 17 or 18 years old, are being sought as witnesses, not suspects. They were noticed around 10:40 p.m.

"The two young men were first observed at the gazebo in the 500 block of Front Avenue and shortly thereafter were observed in the 600 block of Broadway," Cox said.

He said they were wearing dark shorts and T-shirts.

"Anyone seeing these two possible witnesses are asked to call the Columbus Police Department at 706-653-3400," Cox said.

This fire comes more than a month after five cars and a grill cover on a Front Avenue porch were set ablaze. Fires have been set in that area of Front Avenue dating back to 2008.

"We're treating this as a serious crime, not as a prank, not as somebody just messing around," Tomlinson said.

She said she had not heard of any conclusive evidence that the fires in May and the one Saturday night are connected. "We do know they were intentionally set," she said.

Fire Marshal Ricky Shores also said on Sunday that it has not been determined whether this latest car fire is connected to the ones in May. It could be the same people involved. It could be a copycat.

"We're working on it. When you consider the location, it may be logical to think there is a connection but we don't want to make any assumptions right now," Shores said. "We're still investigating. We have a lot of people in different agencies working hard on it."

Working on the case are Columbus police, Columbus Fire and EMS, Muscogee County Sheriff's Office and the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Shores said that arson cases can be especially tough to solve because so much of the evidence is destroyed in the fire.

While the cars in May were totally destroyed, the one Saturday was not. Shores said that can depend on quickly the fire is noticed and the fire department alerted.

The May fires were set in the early morning hours. The one Saturday was set at a time when there is more traffic. If it is the same people starting the fires does that mean they are getting more bold? Shores had no comment on that.

Tomlinson said that with more people out downtown at the time this latest fire was set, "maybe somebody saw something." She hopes the two young men sought as witnesses will be found.

Detective Thomas Hill is among those working the arson cases. He said on Sunday that he is not authorized to make a statement at this time.

Saturday night's victims, Carter and Susan Berry, had a vehicle burned in front of their home in 2008. In the most recent fire, a 2009 Chevrolet truck was damaged at the rear driver's side tire well.

"The mayor and police are taking this very seriously," Susan Berry said. "We appreciate their efforts. This is a major concern for the entire neighborhood. Our whole neighborhood is alarmed by these fires. The police and fire responded very quickly last night."

The early morning fires on May 18 were in a one block area of Front Avenue and Broadway.

At the time, Shores outlined those fires. At 3:22 a.m., the first call of a car fire in the 500 block of Front Avenue came in. A fire truck responded. When they got there, they found two cars on fire. There was a call about the same time about a fire on Broadway, directly behind the fires the department was working. Fire fighters responded to that on foot and determined it was a different fire.

They also found a car fire at the corner of the 600 block of Front Avenue. At that home a gas grill cover on a wooden deck was on fire. Another engine was called in, Shores said.

“It was a lot of chaos,” Shores said in May. “Everything came in within 15 minutes of each other.”

He said finding those responsible was a priority for the department.

“These people have to be caught because they have no reason to stop,” Shores said.

There was once a $10,000 reward on the table for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the vehicle fires.

Shores said in May the task force investigating the fires is being led by arson investigators from the Columbus Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Columbus police, Muscogee County Sheriff’s officers and local agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also are working the case.

There is a history of car fires in the area dating back to 2006. Most recently, at least two cars were torched about a year ago.

Chuck Williams contributed to this report.

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