Arsons keep islanders on edge

Mar 6, 2012

The following article was published in the Fort Myers News-Press on March 6, 2012:

Arsons keep islanders on edge

A little more than a year after the fire that crippled his waterfront bar in 2010, Low Key Tiki co-owner Scott Adams was horrified to see yet another island building engulfed in flames.

“It kind of opens old wounds and you start reliving it all over again,” Adams said.

The Pine Island Chamber of Commerce, which was reduced to charred walls on Jan. 13, is the latest in a string of a dozen suspected arsons in the island communities dating back to November of 2006, when Bob and Annie’s Marina marked the beginning of a nightmare that has put the entire area on edge.

“Whoever’s doing it, they need to catch him and get him off the street,” Adams said.

The state fire marshal’s office has confirmed it has a suspect who has been linked to at least five of the fires, which in total have caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. Lt. Joe Minervini said investigators are leaving open the possibility the suspect could be responsible for other blazes as well, but did not know if charges could be brought against him soon.

“If we knew that, then there’d be an arrest,” he said.

The common thread among all the fires is the time they started — around 1 or 2 a.m., he said. Though businesses have mainly been targeted, two homes are on the list. No one has been injured.

Theories abound as to the motive of the suspected serial arsonist. Some believe he holds a grudge against certain business owners, while others speculate he simply hates commerce. Others believe he is addicted to setting fires or is bent on defrauding the insurance industry.

Minervini said investigators are working on a motive.

In the epicenter — where the suspect is thought to have done most of his work — is a half-mile strip of Matlacha that has seen suspicious fires at the Lob Lolly Restaurant & Lounge, a house called Earl’s Place that also spread to Barnhill Fisheries, a boat behind Bert’s Pine Bay Gallery, a trailer home at Fisherman’s Park, a county-owned site that used to be Michaela’s Snook Inn, the Matlacha post office and the home of Sacred Passages.

Mulletville Bar & Grill also caught fire recently, but investigators say that was an accident.

In addition to Bob and Annie’s and Low Key Tiki Hut, suspected arsons have also consumed a home in Matlacha Isles, a stolen vehicle at the Pine Island VFW and another vehicle at Fuller Drive and Harbor Road.

The only arrest made so far was of Theodore Otstott, 47, who was found guilty of battery and criminal mischief after apparently firing a flare into a neighboring boat behind Bert’s gallery after a fight at a nearby bar.

Diane Stoelker, who rents the Matlacha post office, said it’s hard for her to imagine why someone would want to harm the close-knit community.

She said the fire at her unit has made her more cautious than ever.

“If I pull up at night and I see a car that looks strange anywhere, I write down the license plate number,” she said.

The other night, she said she approached a man who she’d often see sitting in his car outside, only to find out he was simply using free Wi-Fi from a restaurant.

“I wish they could find somebody and put all our minds at ease,” she said.

Precautions made

Even those not directly affected by the fires are taking extra precautions.

Marcella Yeater, president of Gold Key Properties, said her property manager takes her checks and deposits home each night and has changed the way files are stored.

“We used to back up our computers on external hard drives, but now we back them up on the internet — we use Carbonite,” she said. “It’s scary, it really is. I’ve lost a lot of sleep over this.”

Yeater’s property is located next to the old location of Michaela’s Snook Inn, which is now owned by the county and part of the construction of the new Matlacha Bridge. A tiki hut in the back was lit on fire in October 2009.

While no one knows why the blazes are set, what is clear is they have tainted the easygoing island atmosphere with a tinge of fear, with many too scared to discuss the incidents or parsing their words carefully so as not to become the next target.

One resident who is not afraid is John Bunch, founder of Operation Open Arms, a local veterans support group.

Bunch, whose organization lost thousands of dollars in gift cards and donated memorabilia in the fire at the chamber of commerce, has helped raise a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arsonist’s arrest.

Bunch said he would even offer his group’s limousine to chauffeur the suspect to jail. “If he calls me, we’ll get together, pray together, I’ll send a limo and we can get over to (Sheriff) Mike Scott, process him and put this to an end,” he said.

He said it’s only a matter of time before the suspect is behind bars.

“He’s going to commit another arson again, and the next time he does, they’re going to catch him.”

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