Arson suspected in Cape house fire

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Unconfirmed initial evidence suggests the fire started at two places, investigators say.

Investigators on Wednesday returned to the site of a fire that destroyed a home on South Spanish Street and severely damaged a nearby house in order to collect evidence for an arson investigation.

Cape Girardeau fire marshal Mike Morgan wasn't ready to state that he was sure the fire was deliberately set, but investigators have ruled out most accidental causes.

"It appears to have started in two different areas," Morgan said. "One was in the bedroom of the apartment at the rear of the structure and another was at the entrance. We are waiting for substantiation of the evidence."

Only one apartment of the two-apartment structure at 221 S. Spanish St. was occupied at the time of the fire. Cheryl Thomas, who wasn't home when the fire erupted, said Tuesday as the fire consumed her apartment that she was sure it had been deliberately torched.

The intense fire that rapidly consumed Thomas's apartment ignited the exterior wall and roof at 217 S. Spanish St., causing extensive damage to that two-apartment dwelling.

Thomas had said that the front apartment was being used by squatters, but owner Phil Brinson on Wednesday said that wasn't true. Some tenants who had been behind on their rent had recently moved, he said, adding that his property manager assured him that no one had been using the apartment.

Investigators have not questioned him, Brinson said, and have not shared any information.

Witnesses watching firefighters extinquish the blaze on Tuesday described two vehicles that were in front of 221 S. Spanish St. just minutes before smoke appeared from the structure.

One witness, who asked to remain anonymous, described a white car with four male occupants and a heavy-set female. Some of the occupants of the vehicle were seen in a vacant lot adjacent to the home.

Another witness, Don Rice of Flori Heating and Cooling, said he saw a white and yellow van in front of the house right before spotting the fire. Rice made the initial 911 call to report the fire.

Cape Girardeau detectives are helping fire investigators by tracking down leads in the case, Morgan said.

As of late Wednesday afternoon, that effort had not succeeded in locating either vehicle or the occupants, said Jason Selzer, spokesman for the police department.

Samples from the fire scene have been sent to a state crime lab for analysis, Morgan said. He expects results in 10 to 14 days, he said.

"We are looking to confirm the evidence," he said.

The rapid development of the fire -- it consumed Thomas's apartment, with flames pouring out of three exterior walls before firefighters could begin pumping water -- also points to a suspicious origin, Morgan said.

"It had a pretty good start in certain areas," he said. "Something probably gave it a little extra boost."

Anyone with information about the origin of the fire is urged to call the state fire marshal's offce at (800) 39ARSON, or (800) 392-7766. Callers can give information anonymously, and valid information can result in a reward of up to $5,000.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611 extension 126

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