UPDATE: Attorney says authorities have no evidence connecting arson suspect to Front Avenue car fires

Investigator: Linwood-area arson started in vehicle wheel wells

tchitwood@ledger-enqurier.comAugust 14, 2013 

Update

Amid rampant speculation the suspect in an Aug. 6 Linwood-area arson may be implicated in a string of unsolved car fires near his Front Avenue home, investigators this morning testified the fires Robert Wright III is accused of setting started in the wheel wells of two vehicles at Tim's Foreign Car Service, 905-B 15th St.

Some victims of the Front Avenue car fires said their vehicles were set ablaze by an arsonist who set a cup of flammable liquid under a tire and lit it, so the tire caught fire first and then flames spread to the rest of the automobile.

Authorities have not named Wright a suspect in the Front Avenue fires, and Wright's attorney said any speculation they will is just rumor and innuendo.

"There's nothing to connect him with all of the arsons down in the district," said attorney Richard Hagler, referencing Columbus' Historic District that includes Front Avenue. "I live down in that area, and I am not aware of anything at this point that makes that connection. There's going to be a lot of speculation, but speculation as you and I both know oftentimes does not hold up. At this point, there's not one thing solid that I'm aware of, that places any connection between him and those arsons that occurred in the district."

Investigators declined to comment on whether they were probing a possible connection. After Wright's arrest Wednesday, authorities served a search warrant at his 510 Front Ave. home, confiscating an iPad and other electronics, they said.

Today in Columbus Recorder's Court, a police property crimes detective and a fire department arson investigator said surveillance video from nearby businesses led to Wright's arrest in the blaze at the car repair shop, which Wright had visited before the fire started.

Owner Tim Trammel said Wright had been at the shop with Trammel's son, watching as three others there practiced boxing. Trammel said he'd known Wright about six months, and Wright once brought the shop some pumps to remove water from a leak.

Trammel said that the night of the fire, the group had arrived at the shop about 10:30 p.m., and he was the last to lock up at 1:59 a.m., as evidenced by a cell phone call he made as he was leaving.

The fire was discovered about 2:30 a.m., authorities said. Finding someone had forced open a rolling bay door on the building's southeast side, firefighters summoned police.

Investigators began checking for security cameras in the area, and found two: One at a nearby plumbing company and another at the city's Metra transit headquarters off Linwood Boulevard. In court they testified that the video was not clear enough to show the suspect's face or his vehicle tag, but they could see custom alterations to the suspect's pickup truck that matched Wright's.

They said those added touches included a black bed cover, oversized side mirrors with blinkers in them, black tire rims on oversized tires, mud flaps and a front bumper brush guard on which they found traces of white paint that appeared to match the auto shop's damaged bay door.

They said the video showed the 2011 Ford Super Duty truck pull up to the door, and the driver get out to test the entrance to see if it was locked. Then he drove away, but later returned, ramming the door to cause about $4,000 damage and open a gap of about 4 feet at the bottom. Smoke comes from the shop after the driver leaves, they said.

The two cars set afire inside were about 40 feet apart, investigators said. Each fire started under a front fender in the wheel well, and each fire's cause was "incendiary in nature," they said.

They estimated the total damage from the fire at $20,000.

They charged Wright with two counts each of arson, burglary and criminal damage to property. Recorder's Court Judge Michael Cielinski sent Wright's case to Superior Court, setting bonds at $5,000 each on the burglary and criminal damage charges and $10,000 on each arson count, for a total of $40,000.

Update

A Columbus Recorder's Court judge ordered a Columbus man charged with burglary and arson of a local auto repair business held on $40,000 bond Thursday morning.

Robert Wright III, 25, was charged with two counts of criminal damage, two counts of arson and two counts of burglary, Fire Marshal Ricky Shores said. The early-morning fire was at Tim’s Foreign Car Service at 905-B 15th Street. Judge Michael Cielinski set the arson bonds at $10,000 each and the burglary-related bonds at $5,000 each.

Wright, who was arrested Wednesday morning, did not testify and was represented by criminal defense attorney Richard Hagler. Columbus Police detective Thomas Hill and Columbus Fire and EMS arson investigator Charles Collins outlined the case against Wright for the early-morning Aug. 6 fire.

Police say they have video evidence from nearby businesses of Wright's silver truck ramming into a roll-up door at the shop. A person driving the truck enter the business and came out as smoke was coming from the inside, according to Hill.

Wright had been at the business until about 2 a.m. when owner Tim Tramel and his son secured the business and left. Tramel, his son, Wright and one other man had been there for more than two hours drinking beer and boxing, Tramel testified.

The case is bound to Muscogee County Superior Court.

Original story A Columbus man was arrested Wednesday morning and charged with arson in connection with an Aug. 6 fire at an automotive repair shop, a Columbus Fire & EMS official said.

Robert Wright III, 25, was charged with two counts of criminal damage, two counts of arson and two counts of burglary, Fire Marshal Ricky Shores said. The early-morning fire was at Tim’s Foreign Car Service, one of three businesses in the building at 905 15th Street.

Wright lives on the same street where a series of high-profile car fires dating back to 2008 has occurred. Law enforcement executed a search warrant at Wright’s home at 510 Front Ave. around noon, Shores said.

The automotive repair shop fire was reported at 2:14 a.m., Shores said. Two vehicles inside the shop were set on fire, Shores said. An older Camaro Z28 and Monte Carlo were damaged. A sprinkler system in the automotive repair shop helped keep the fire under control, Shores said.

Tim Tramel has owned the repair shop for about five years. He has met Wright, who is a friend of one of the shop’s employees. About two weeks ago, Wright brought some pumps for shop workers to use to get water out of the shop after a heavy rain, Tramel said. Those same pumps were used to clean up after the fire, Tramel said.

Shores said two people were inside the building when the fire started. Both of them got out safely.

Historic District fires

Shores would not connect Wright to the long-running string of Historic District fires.

“I don’t want people to assume because Mr. Wright lives on Front Avenue, he was associated with those fires,” Shores said.

Mayor and Public Safety Director Teresa Tomlinson said she was aware of the arrest and charges, but knew of no connection between the Linwood arrest and the Historic District fires.

“This is an ongoing investigation, and I’m not going to speculate about an ongoing investigation,” Tomlinson said.

The most recent Historic District fire happened around 10:30 p.m. July 6 when a red Chevrolet truck in the 500 block of Front Avenue was set on fire. A passerby noticed the fire and alerted the owners, Carter and Susan Berry, who live next door to Wright and have twice been victims of car fires.

Columbus Fire & EMS responded to a 911 call and extinguished the fire without the truck being a total loss.

At the time, Police Lt. Steve Cox said two boys who appeared to be 17 or 18 years old had been noticed in the area around 10:40 p.m. and were being sought as witnesses, not suspects.

The July truck fire followed multiple fires set around 3 a.m. on May 18 in a one-block area of Front Avenue and Broadway.

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 and found two cars on fire. About the same time, fire fighters were called to another fire directly behind those fires.

They also found a car fire at the corner of the 600 block of Front Avenue, and then saw the home at that address and noticed that a gas grill cover on the 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.”

Several of the vehicles were total losses.

After those fires, Tomlinson held a meeting in the Historic District attended by about 100 residents and concerned citizens. She said finding the person responsible was a priority.

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

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