• Nine fires in nine days: Investigators want to catch serial arsonist in Lake County

    By: Kevin Williams , Ken Tyndall


    LAKE COUNTY, Fla. - As Lake County firefighters investigate a string of arsons in recent weeks, investigators are trying to figure out if the two most recent fires to hit the community are also the work of an arsonist.

    The two most recent fires happened within 30 minutes of each other on Monday afternoon. Firefighters were called to an abandoned mobile home on State Route 19 near Bay Street Baptist Church around 4 p.m.

    At 4:26 p.m., firefighters got another call that a dumpster was on fire in the parking lot of the Save-A-Lot on Central Avenue in Umatilla, just four miles down the road from the first fire.


    No one was injured in either fire.

    Firefighters described the mobile home fire as suspicious, but they would not say if it was a case of arson.

    Cases connected?

    An analysis by 9 Investigates reporter Karla Ray shows there is no clear pattern of behavior connecting the 9 fires, which makes the next fire nearly impossible to predict.

    Four of the suspected arsons happened early on a Sunday morning. Some targeted cars. Another targeted a convenience store. Others have targeted homes, barns, and even a dumpster.

    The only obvious link: The fires have all happened near County Road 19. 

    "For a small community like Umatilla, this is terrifying," said Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.

    Investigators said people with information that leads to an arrest may be eligible for a cash reward. To contact investigators, call the arson tip hotline at 1-877-NO-ARSON (1-877-662-7766)

    Also read: Deputies release videos of suspect accused in seven Lake County arson cases

    Two fires in 30 minutes

    The owner of the mobile home that burned Monday afternoon said he uses it for storage for other rental units.

    "He'd been in the house about 15 minutes prior and had left the scene and then came back when they saw the heavy black smoke and heard about the fire," Lake County Battalion Chief Michael Cordle said.

    Neighbor Brian Carter said he awoke to smoke in his home.

    "I ran in and got my wife out, (because) she was still asleep and this house was getting a little smoky," he said. "I said, 'We got to get out of the trailer. The storage trailer here is on fire.'"

    While fire investigators have not said Monday’s fires were intentionally set, deputies are looking for the person or people behind a string of arsons in the Umatilla area.

    Seven arsons were reported over the last two weeks. In one instance, video shows a suspect breaking into a Sunoco gas station and setting the building on fire.

    Carter said something must be done to stop the suspect whether or not Monday's fires were cases of arson.

    "My wife and my family ... that's my life, and this hits too close to home," he said. "Something needs to be done. They need to be stopped."

    Watch Channel 9 Eyewitness News for LIVE updates. Not near a TV? Click here to watch WFTV newscasts live

    BELOW: Interactive map showing dates & locations of Umatilla fires since Feb. 17
    (Editor's note: Does not include a Feb. 18 fire at the home of a Lake County sheriff's deputy. WFTV is not including that location to protect the sheriff's deputy) 


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