Authorities trying to make sense of latest string of fires that killed a Cape man

Wednesday, April 30, 2008
AARON EISENHAUER ~ aeisenhauer@semissourian.com Firefighters work on a home at 203 Pacific St. following a fatal fire that began in the early morning hours on Tuesday, April 29, 2008.

Investigators from federal, state and local agencies swarmed over the charred remains of a building at the corner of Pacific and William streets most of the day Tuesday, trying to make sense of the latest in string of suspicious fires.

The first blaze of three that broke out Tuesday morning, at 203 S. Pacific St., claimed the life of 42-year-old George E. Robinson, of Cape Girardeau, who died of smoke inhalation.

Now, police aren't just searching for an arsonist, they're searching for a murderer.

Char- and ash-blackened sections of the sidewalk in front of the house were cordoned off as investigators from the Cape Girardeau-Bollinger Major Case Squad, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Cape Girardeau Fire Department and state fire marshal's office combed through debris and collected evidence. Authorities determined late in the afternoon that the fire was incendiary, or set.

Firefighters responded to the blaze around 3:30 a.m. to find the building already engulfed in flames, said Sgt. Barry Hovis, spokesman for the police department.

Bob Tatro, a tenant in the building, said he awoke to pounding on the ceiling above him, followed swiftly by the sound of people running. He hastily grabbed some belongings and got out of the house but was allowed to make one trip back in to gather a few more possessions, at which time he said the smoke had risen up to his neck. When he returned outside, the flames were shooting across the sidewalk in front of the building, he said.

The Salvation Army and American Red Cross are helping him locate housing, he said.

The building is owned by former state representative Nathan Cooper, according to Cape Girardeau police reports.

Fire in a closet

Two additional fires occurred in the early morning hours Tuesday, both of which investigators have determined were intentionally set.

One occurred at 1015 Bloomfield St., an apartment building.

According to one of the building tenants, who asked that his name be withheld because he feared retaliation, the fire began in a closet on the third-floor, left-side apartment.

"I woke up because I smelled smoke and heard the fire alarm going off," he said.

He said he stuck his head out his door and found the hallway thick with smoke. He also smelled an additional odor that he said he could only describe as very strong.

His neighbor told him the fire had started in his closet and he was trying to put it out, he said.

The smell was so bad he couldn't sleep, so he called his father, and they left for Rhodes 101 to get a soda. While they were out, his father advised him to call the fire department, he said.

He made the call around 4:15 a.m., according to police reports.

The second fire was reported less than a half an hour later at 511 S. Ellis St. It caused minor damage.

The latest cluster of suspicious fires comes at the tail end of a stream of blazes deemed suspicious, concentrated on the south side of town.

There have been 19 suspicious fires within city limits since April 2005, according to police reports.

On April 24, a suspicious fire occurred at 516 N. Middle St., and another one a few hours later at 416 N. Frederick St.

On April 26, Hazel Jackson discovered she had also been a victim of arson when she had her son, Calvin Jackson, check on her South Benton Street residence and found the front porch had been set on fire.

Jackson had moved out temporarily to have some renovations done. Several weeks before the fire, she had been informed by police that someone had been hanging out in and about her house. She said evidence of drugs was found inside the house and thinks the fire may have been drug-related.

Some of the results of tests performed by the state crime lab on some of the more recent suspicious fires showed presence of commonly used accelerants, Cape Girardeau fire marshal Mike Morgan said.

Morgan declined to comment on the specific results of the tests, or which fires may be connected.

There are commonalities between some of the fires, he said.

Investigators examine all of the fires for common traits like where the fire started, how the starter could have gained entry and whether it was started with materials that had been lying around the building, Morgan said.

"I don't see who in the world could get satisfaction out of destroying others' property," he said.

Morgan advised that concerned citizens keep their doors and windows secure and refrain from storing flammable liquids in an accessible location.

Keeping weeds mowed and cutting back on debris may also help deter a firebug, Morgan said.

Extra officers will be on patrol Tuesday evening, Hovis said.

Anyone with information concerning any of the suspicious fires is encouraged to call the Arson Hotline at 800-392-7766, CrimeStoppers at 332-0500, or the Cape Girardeau police. A reward of up to $6,000 is available for information leading to an arrest and a conviction.

bdicosmo@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 245

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