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Residents Scared by Fires, but Vigilance Best Defense: Stratton

Police and fire officials are working with 15 fire investigators in an effort to solve the five car/house fires that started Christmas Day.

Plainfield Deputy Fire Chief Jon Stratton knows Hazelwood Drive residents fear a serial arsonist could be targeting their cars and homes.

And he can't blame them for being scared, given that the set since Dec. 25 have occurred within a small section of the 16700 block of Hazelwood, he said. In two cases, the cars were inside garages attached to two-level town houses, allowing the flames to spread and in one case almost completely destroy a home.

His advice: Be vigilant. Keep your eyes open. Park your cars in the garage, if you can, and lock both the garage door and the car.

"We just want to calm people down," Stratton said. "They are arson fires. I'm not going to tell people they aren't. ... (But) it's a crime of opportunity."

In four of the five cases, the suspect or suspects targeted cars that were unlocked. Three were parked in driveways and one in a garage in which the overhead garage door was left open.

The only case that doesn't quite match the scenario, Stratton said, is the , which started at about 10 a.m. in an SUV parked inside a garage in which the door was closed, according to the owner.

The other thing that suggests a crime of opportunity is there is no consistent means by which the blazes are being started, he said.

In the case of Steve Daigle's vehicle, the fire was set by a lighter that the alleged arsonist left behind in the vehicle. Notebooks and paperwork left on the car seat were used to get it going, but it smoldered for a long time before it really ignited, Daigle said.

In fact, Daigle didn't even realize his vehicle was on fire when he was awakened at 2:30 a.m. Sunday by the fire trucks battling the fire down the block at 16777 Hazelwood Drive, he said.

"Basically, we woke up when we heard the fire engines and when we went outside, we saw our neighbor talking about his car and how somebody attempted to burn it," Daigle said.

He and his wife walked down to get a closer look at the town home fire and only upon their return did they notice their vehicle in the driveway was in flames, he said.

"We've been here for nine years. ... We thought we lived in a nice, quiet neighborhood," Daigle said. "I do lock my cars, but sometimes I don't. I didn't think I had to in this neighborhood."

No longer, he said. All three of the family's cars will be locked from here on out, regardless of whether they're in the driveway or inside the garage, which will also be locked, Daigle said.

"We'll be putting up cameras in the near future," he added -- and staying up late on Saturday nights to keep an eye on their property and that of the neighbors'.

Kristine Weiss said she, too, thought she lived in quiet subdivision, one in which she and her husband were safe to raise three young children.

"We were pretty shocked" by the rash of fires, she said. It's made them more aware of what's going on outside their house.

"We're parking further away from the house," Weiss said, "and making sure everything's locked."

She said she's also noticed neighbors are leaving their garage and porch lights on at night, making it easier to see suspicious activity near houses.

That's a good idea, Stratton said. So, too, is the idea of creating a neighborhood watch group, he said, something that Daigle said a few neighbors have briefly discussed.

However, a neighborhood watch group is not a vigilante posse, charged with trying to capture the alleged arsonist or arsonists on their own, Stratton stressed.

The Plainfield police and fire departments have been working closely with 15 fire investigators assigned to the cases, and any tips should be forwarded to them, he said. While they're still piecing together time tables, reconciling discrepancies and collecting evidence, they're also following leads, he said.

Some have suggested this could be a copycat case in which someone is mimicking the behavior of the serial arsonist in Los Angeles, who set 53 car and house fires in four days. Stratton said he's not sure that theory makes sense given that the 24-year-old man arrested in California was acting out of anger because his mother being deported Germany.

"I'd like to put an end to this as soon as possible," Stratton said. "We have leads we're working. ... but we have to be careful not to say anything that might jeopardize a case."

Jerdonjac January 10, 2012 at 11:21 AM
Mike the DB found under the I55 overpass was the homeless man that lived under the little open space under the overpass. Sad story and sad to hear about -
Jake January 10, 2012 at 07:41 PM
Maybe aggravated arson, MURDER is a bit much.
Erica January 12, 2012 at 05:39 AM
Had someone died in one of these fires, the arsonist would be charged with murder. If that is the case, there is no reason why each of these incidents shouldn't be seen as attempted murder.

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