LaFayette plagued by arsons

LaFayette plagued by arsons

December 9th, 2010 by Joy Lukachick Smith in News

Staff Photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press Detective Sgt. Stacey Meeks, the lead arson investigator with the LaFayette, Ga., Police Department, stands outside of a burned home off of West Main Street while speaking about a serial arsonist who he believes set this and another LaFayette home on fire Monday.

Staff Photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press...

LaFAYETTE, Ga. -- For more than two decades, LaFayette safety officials say, they have battled home arsons in an isolated part of town.

But now police say the arsons are moving into other parts of the community and they have enlisted federal help to track down what may be a serial arsonist.

"It's like the [arsonists] are spreading out; they're getting more brave, coming in to more populated areas," said Sgt. Stacey Meeks with the LaFayette police.

In the past five years the department has investigated more than 30 arsons, he said.

The latest arsons happened Monday within an hour of each other -- one at 1688 W. North Main St. and another across town at 511 W. Main St. Police believe the fires could have been started by the same person because simultaneous fires "just don't happen, especially for a town this size," Meeks said.

Meeks said he took over as lead investigator for the police department several months ago after a new string of suspicious fires kindled in October.

In the past, most arsons happened in the Linwood area, he said. But the latest fires were in the middle of town.

Reported arsons since 2005

* Walker County: 71

* LaFayette: More than 30

Source: LaFayette Police Department, Georgia Insurance and Fire Safety Commissioner

The houses that are burned are all abandoned, the utilities are cut off and usually the fire was lighted in the same area of the house, Meeks said. Most of the houses are not insured, so there is no financial benefit to torching them, he said.

Officials from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were called in to help investigate, Meeks said.

ATF officials agree that the number of arsons in the city is high.

Thirty suspicious fires in five years seems "excessive," said Richard Coes, a spokesman for the ATF Atlanta office.

On Wednesday, officials with the Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner's Office combed the house at 511 W. Main St for evidence.

"Arsons are very easy to prove," Meeks said. "But it's very, very hard to locate your perpetrator and convict them."

If no one steps forward as a witness, it's almost impossible to convict an arsonist because the crime scene burns up, he said.

While the police department has a juvenile suspect in mind whom local residents tend to blame for the fires, Meeks said no one can pinpoint the suspect to a specific crime.

Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John Oxendine is offering a reward of $10,000 for information that leads to an arrest or conviction, said spokesman Glenn Allen. The arson hot line number is 800-282-5804.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.