- The Washington Times - Monday, December 28, 2009

HOUSTON (AP) | A 4-foot-high pile of ash and charred debris is all that remains of the Rodriguez family’s two-story garage, which had been stuffed with tools, machinery, couches and appliances when a mysterious fire ripped through it earlier this month.

The Dec. 4 fire was the 22nd arson since August in a historic Houston neighborhood called the Heights, known more for its comforting small-town feel in the midst of big-city sprawl than for being the center of criminal activity.

Most of the fires have taken place in the middle of the night and nearly always in abandoned structures, though flames have leapt to some adjacent occupied homes, frightening residents such as the Rodriguez family.

“I just don’t know when they are going to catch this guy,” a dejected Jesus Rodriguez said as he stood over his truck’s pickup bed, dirtied by ash and scorched pieces of wood after it had been used to haul away the debris.

Authorities charged a suspect last month with starting one of the blazes. But he has not been charged with any of the other arsons, and the fires continued even after his arrest. Residents of the Heights, which sits on one of Houston’s rare hills overlooking nearby downtown, have taken some comfort that no one has been hurt. But they worry that their property could be next.

“I don’t feel like they have the person that did it,” said Diane Kight, who lives across the street from a home set ablaze on Nov. 11. She was recently driving home after taking her husband to work and saw a firetruck and immediately worried it could be speeding to her house. “It’s scary.”

The fires have kept to the Heights, a neighborhood of more than 40,000 residents first developed in 1892. Its streets are lined by majestic trees and stately Victorian-style homes. The locally owned antiques and coffee shops and art galleries give it a laid-back atmosphere.

But the landscape has changed on some streets. Some of the torched structures still stand, littered with burned mattresses, blackened photographs. Others have been torn down, only a concrete foundation or dirt lot remaining.

The fires have shared a similar pattern: The arsonist targets mostly older, unoccupied homes, garages, storage sheds and other structures, setting them ablaze either late in the evening or in the early morning hours. A few of the fires happened at occupied homes, but no one was hurt. Some structures have been set ablaze more than once. One location was hit four times.

Alison Stein, assistant chief investigator for the Houston Fire Department, said arson investigators have concluded all the fires were intentionally set. But authorities won’t say how the fires have been started, whether they believe one person or several are responsible or what the motive is.

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