Heights residents take new measures against arson

HOUSTON While there has been an arrest in one of the cases, there are still other arson fires that are unsolved. After months of fires, there are now extra steps being taken to make sure more homes are not damaged by fire.

Residents are taking the usual precautions such as leaving outdoor lights on at night and being on the lookout for suspicious activity. However, it goes beyond that. People selling their homes in the Heights are hiring house sitters to keep their structures occupied and less inviting to the person or people setting fires to empty houses in one of Houston's most desirable real estate markets.

The Heights has seen a lot over the last century, most recently an influx of expensive new homes mixed in with vintage and sometimes vacant and neglected housing. But it's the past four months that has people on edge.

"Now, it's like when you go in at night, you wonder who's around and who's driving around. It's kind of sad," said resident Jason Pratt.

In the western section of the Heights, an empty house burned repeatedly in August is the ground zero of the arson fires. As of today, a total of 22 arson fires are now concentrated in the same general area, spread out among a dozen streets. The last one took place on December 9 in another vacant structure. It was set on fire twice in two weeks.

"It gets scarier as the numbers go up," said resident Amy Cameron.

Consider though the case of Bill Baldwin, a Heights homeowner and a member of the Heights association who specializes in selling homes in the Heights.

"At open houses, at showings, people come informed with their maps, with their information printed from websites, they come asking questions on the arsonist, absolutely," said Baldwin of Boulevard Realty.

The ATF is helping the city investigating the fires. Four hundred leads are said to be under investigation, but there has been only one arrest, followed by even more fires.

"We have a lot of sources that we tap into, but what will finally be the piece that we get that finally puts everything together? I can't tell you that right now," said Chief Gabe Cortez of the Houston Fire Department's Arson Division.

So the concern in the Heights continues. Among owners of expensive homes, the owner of an empty framed house passed down from his family is also guarding his property.

"I got a hand when they come. You hear this," said Anthony Oliver as he stepped on creaky boards on his front porch. "It shakes. They don't know this. So when I hear it shake, I know what time it is."

Another sign of concern is that a contract deputy constable patrol will soon be starting in this affected part of the Heights. Homeowners will pay $225 for the extra security.

So far, investigators have one suspect in custody for only one of the fires. Investigators say /*David Prince*/ confessed to setting an abandoned home on fire on West 12th Street. That is still the only arson charge he faces.

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