MARION COUNTY, Fla. - Investigators in Marion County said a ring of arsonists set Christmas trees on fire in their rental homes so they could collect the insurance money.
Investigators said during the last Christmas season at least three homes were deliberately burned to the ground and they suspect several others were torched the same way.
Along 110th Street in rural Fort McCoy, a mobile home burned to the ground. Across town, another home was destroyed by fire. Investigators said these were no accidents.
"Information we received on some of the fires indicated that the Christmas trees were lit on fire -- and made to look as if the tree accidentally ignited during the Christmas season that year," said arson investigator Lt. Matt Legler.
Legler said it was a scheme hatched by 55-year-old Edward "Rocky" Williams. Detectives said he recruited at least four other people to buy renters insurance, set fire to their rental homes and then split the insurance money.
Just to make it look good, Legler said they stayed in the houses until the fire got going so it would look like they'd been inside the house and smelled like smoke or have soot on their clothes.
"Something of that nature to make their story more believable," Legler said.
Investigators called it Operation Christmas Tree. A break in the case came when one of the renters was arrested on an unrelated charge – a present of information given to detectives.
"In fact, had we not received that witness information, we have continued to assume that these were accidental fires," Legler said.
Detectives said the suspects pocketed up to $185,000 in insurance payouts before they were caught.