Ellis Street house fire deemed arson

Saturday, June 13, 2009
The home at 509 S. Ellis St. was burned earlier this week. (Kit Doyle)

Investigators have determined that a Wednesday morning fire at a vacant home on South Ellis Street was intentionally set but have yet to link it to any of the unsolved string of suspicious fires that have plagued Cape Girardeau for the past two years.

Like a handful of the other suspected arsons, the fire occurred on the south side of Cape Girardeau during early morning hours and involved an unoccupied residence.

"We haven't found anything on the current arson that would link it to the others," said Sgt. Jason Selzer, spokesman for the Cape Girardeau Police Department.

The fire was reported just before 4 a.m. Wednesday at a house at 509 S. Ellis St. and caused moderate damage to the structure.

It appeared someone had forced their way into the house, Selzer said.

No utilities

Several things aroused suspicion that the fire had been set. One was that there were no utilities currently supplying the house, said Capt. Richard Lyke of the Cape Girardeau Fire Department.

"What we have to do is rule out any accidental causes," Lyke said. "In this case, there were no utilities to the house, no storms in the area. That's when we have to start looking at what could have caused it."

When assessing a fire for signs it may have been intentionally set, fire investigators will examine the patterns made when the wood of the structure chars during the blaze and collect samples of debris from different areas of the house, Lyke said.

Lyke declined to discuss whether there appeared to have been multiple places in the house where the fire started, citing it as part of the ongoing investigation.

The fire was thought to have originated toward the front of the house, and investigators found indications an accelerant was used there, Selzer said.

More than a dozen suspicious fires have occurred in Cape Girardeau since January 2008, including one April 29 in an apartment building at 203 S. Pacific St. that resulted in the death of 42-year-old George Robinson.

Because there was a homicide involved, the Cape Girardeau County-Bollinger county Major Case Squad was activated, but it failed to make an arrest, making it the only unsolved case under current case squad leadership.

Though a "person of interest" emerged in connection to some of the arsons, there isn't enough evidence to make an arrest, Selzer said.

A joint arson task force, made up of members of law enforcement and fire investigators, was called to ensure evidence collection was done properly and the appropriate protocol was followed, Selzer said.

"The arson task force isn't like the drug task force or the major case squad; they're basically just making sure the right people are notified," Selzer said.

Arson can be a difficult crime in which to build a case against a suspect, said Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle.

"By the nature of the crime it's done in stealth with no eyewitnesses," Swingle said.

"It's just someone sneaking around, starting a fire, running off."

An important part of an arson investigation is learning who would stand to benefit from the crime, Swingle said.

Swingle cited a recent arson at a Cape Girardeau law office that was solved by DNA evidence the arsonist left at the scene.

Anyone with information regarding the fires is encouraged to call the state arson hot line 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

388-3635

Pertinent addresses

203 S. Pacific St.

509 S. Ellis St. it

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