Originally created 10/04/04

Officials hunt for arsonist in Atlanta



ATLANTA - Early in the morning at old apartment buildings in some of Atlanta's most trendy neighborhoods, a serial arsonist has been at work, setting fire to secluded stairwells.

Eight apartment buildings have been damaged since Aug. 28 in Atlanta's Midtown and Virginia-Highland neighborhoods. In those cases, Atlanta fire officials say the fires were quickly put out because of smoke detectors or alert residents.

But a fire on Saturday at an old apartment building in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood destroyed four apartment units, seriously damaged another four and nearly caused a death, said Dennis Ware, section chief of fire investigations for the Atlanta Fire Department.

As a result, fire officials are asking residents in those neighborhoods to help them find the arsonist. There have been no injuries, but officials fear it is only a matter of time before another fire kills unsuspecting, sleeping residents.

"We are asking for the help of Atlanta's residents to look for someone suspicious or any suspicious behavior," said Jolene Butts Freeman, Atlanta Fire Department spokeswoman. "We don't want anybody to get hurt - we definitely don't want fatalities."

Fire officials believe one person has been setting the fires, targeting Midtown's old apartment buildings and focusing on poorly-lit stairwells concealed by hedges that are close to the street, Ware said.

The fires mainly have been set in early morning hours, from midnight to 4 a.m., but some of the fires have been set in broad daylight, he added.

The fire department is recommending that people living in older apartment buildings in the Midtown area install smoke detectors in their stairwells and make sure apartment smoke detectors are working properly.

"That way, you get early detection to get out instead of being trapped," Ware said.

Fire officials requested help on Thursday from Georgia Fire Commissioner John Oxendine, said spokesman Glenn Allen.

"He really wants to get this person or persons caught," Allen said.

A $10,000 reward has been established for information leading to the arrest of a person or persons involved in the arson fires. Fire officials are encouraging residents with tips to contact the Georgia Arson Hotline at 800-282-5804.

But officials remained confident they will be able to stop the arsons.

"Eventually, we'll definitely catch them - they can't keep this up," Ware said. "We're pretty good at catching people - this is early on."