Cape Girardeau arson investigations continue

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The South Pacific Street house where tenant George Robinson died in a fire April 29 is gone.

Steve Spurgeon's home at 338 S. Ellis St., burned March 9, was razed in June.

The fires that destroyed those homes are among nearly 30 being investigated as arsons by the Cape Girardeau Police Department.

"The majority of the fires, we believe, are the result of one person or one group of people," said Cape Girardeau police detective Joe Tado, who supervises the criminal investigation unit and is the lead police investigator at fire scenes.

Most of the homes were vacant when burned.

A typical crime scene has a variety of evidence for investigators to collect, he said, but the most of the evidence at a fire scene is either destroyed or damaged by the blaze or the water used to douse the flames.

"Evidence that is possibly left at the crime scene includes accelerants, fingerprints, DNA," Tado said.

He is on an arson task force with two other police detectives, an investigator with the Missouri state fire marshal's office and at least one member of the Cape Girardeau Fire Department. The task force, formed after Spurgeon's fire, meets on an irregular basis — after a suspicious fire, as happened shortly after the Jan. 9 blaze at 319 S. Middle St., or when new information comes from an investigator, a member of the public or from crime lab results, Tado said.

State fire marshal Randy Cole said he has periodically lent an investigator to Cape Girardeau's arson task force "to help them follow up on any leads and do what we could to bring it to an end."

He said arson investigations are among the most difficult to prosecute.

"Many are developed and prosecuted on circumstantial evidence versus direct evidence," he said. "We really rely on the public for help with these cases."

He said people can use at least two hot lines to phone in anonymous tips and stand to gain up to $5,000 in reward money if the information leads to arrests and convictions.

Tado said people who own vacant properties can make them safer three ways.

"They need to make sure they secure it as best as possible," he said. "They need to make sure the building is as well-lit as possible and check it as frequently as possible."

Spurgeon's house burned while he was out of state driving a truck for a living. He said he suspects a former neighbor, now in jail on another charge, set the fire that destroyed his house. Although he wonders whether the fires will resume once the man is released, Spurgeon has turned his mind to other things. Just before he tore down his home, Spurgeon salvaged a claw-foot tub he plans to have restored. He is not sure he'll rebuild on the lot.

"A guy had the gall to come by and offer me $2,000 for the empty lot and $4,000 for my house," he said. He settled with his insurance company for an undisclosed sum.

Not all the arson targets have been torn down. Some have been boarded up, and others are destined for renovation, though it may take years for change to happen.

Work on the house at 203 S. Middle St., which burned years ago while being used as a drug house, according to a former owner, has slowly advanced over the last several months. New custom windows were recently installed by owners Dustin Richardson and Jason Coalter. The duo, partners in Centurion Development, purchased the home two years ago from John Wyman. He in turn bought the house, despite its having been burned by an arsonist years earlier, to prevent the century-old home from being razed.

Wyman recently sold his remaining six other homes on the block, including 319 S. Middle St., to Richardson and Coalter because they are "doing exactly what we wanted to do with it," Wyman said.

Richardson said the closing for 319 S. Middle St. was disrupted by the Jan. 9 fire and has been set for later this month following a renegotiation of the price.

People with information on any arson can call the Cape Girardeau Police Department at 335-6621 or the CrimeStoppers number at 332-0500. The state arson hot line is 1-800-392-7766.

pmcnichol@semissourian.com

388-3646

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