Serial arsonist still at large

HOUSTON While investigators assure the public that both federal and local resources are working these cases around the clock, a serial arsonist is at large and fears are mounting.

"It scares you to think of what people are actually capable of," said resident Shane Bouldin.

Frightened residents can't help but worry what if they're next?

"I worry about it every night when I go to bed. Is my business still going to be there in the morning when I wake up? Or am I going to hear fire trucks in the middle of the night?" said business owner Manuel Vega.

With every day that passes, it makes them wonder all the more who's doing it. Single, young white men fit the typical profile.

"These are your neighbors, sometimes your friends, sometimes individuals that you would never think they would do this," said Captain Dustin Deutsch of the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office.

Perhaps even more disturbing are the reasons why.

"Most of the time it's an empowerment tool," said Capt. Deutsch. "There are individuals that do it for a response. There's people that do it for self-esteem. Some individuals have been known to set fires for immediate sexual gratification."

Capt. Deutsch is a seasoned arson investigator and he says what's even more shocking about the typical serial arsonist is that many times they are actual firefighters. Take Jason Southard and Marvin Romero. The two former Cloverleaf volunteer firefighters were sentenced to prison, Southard for five years and Romero for nine, for setting fire to several homes in Cloverleaf and Channelview back in 2006.

Investigators say most serial arsonists start small and work their way up.

"It surprises us sometimes because they know more details than we know about the fires. Every single fire scene they know to a T," said Capt. Deutsch.

Because most serial arsonists are somewhat intelligent, investigators admit trying to identify them is extremely taxing and requires an enormous amount of resources. Every single fire is unique and must be analyzed and evaluated.

They typically get caught when they get sloppy and make mistakes. Rarely has it been that the intent of a serial arsonist is to try to hurt or kill anybody. Serial arson in Harris County is rare. In the last 10 years, arson investigators have looked into about a half dozen cases.

While he's not involved in The Heights arson investigation, Capt. Deutsch theorizes, based on his experience, that "they'll be caught soon enough. It takes time."

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee joined forces with local council members and the Houston Fire Department to announce the creation of a new fire crime task force. The neighborhood group is working closely with the fire department to try to find the arsonist.

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