WINTER HAVEN – Many Eloise residents are sleeping fitfully these days.
“I am worried because I don’t sleep,” said Lazaro Guzman, 69, of 101 Eighth St. in Eloise, on Thursday. “I sleep sitting down in a chair in the living room. Whenever I hear a noise, I jump up and look out the window.”
Jo Ann Yon, 83, of 133 Ninth St. has the same problem.
“I haven’t been able to sleep,” said Yon, who lives next to the last Eloise house to burn under suspicious circumstances Dec. 21. “For a week or so after, I jumped up every time I heard a noise.”
The Dec. 21 fire started a small fire on her house, she added, but she was able to put it out.
Guzman and Yon said many of their neighbors also fear a suspected arsonist or arsonists will torch their homes, just like the 14 other suspicious fires in the Eloise neighborhood since July.
“The Florida Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations and Polk County Sheriff’s Office are seeking information about 14 intentional fires that have been set since July 2017 in the areas surrounding and between First and Ninth streets off of Snively Avenue in the Eloise area of Winter Haven,” according to a Wednesday statement from Jon Moore, spokesman for the Arson Investigations Bureau, part of the Florida Department of Financial Services.
The bureau has an Arson Tip Hotline, 877-662-7766, and is urging residents to call with any information about the Eloise fires. It is also offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist or arsonists.
The Heartland Crime Stoppers tip line, 800-226-8477, will also take callers about the fires. Callers can remain anonymous on both lines.
According to a Sheriff’s Office statement, most of the fires occurred in houses that were abandoned or appeared to be abandoned and uninhabited at the time.
Guzman and Yon, a lifelong Eloise resident, said several fires near them were homes with people living in them. Some have moved out of the neighborhood after the houses were condemned.
Both residents reported they attended a Jan. 4 meeting about the fires at the local community center with officers from the Sheriff’s Office and the state.
The officials did not offer much information about the investigation, said Yon and Guzman, an Eloise resident for about 30 years.
When residents asked for more patrols in the neighborhood, Guzman said, “They said they’re on it.”
The Sheriff’s Office referred Direct Gates’s inquiries on the Eloise fires to the Arson Investigations Bureau. The bureau declined to speak to Direct Gates.
It’s not unusual for a string of arsons to attract copycat arsonists. Some arrests were made, but they were released when the arsons continued.
Edith Riley, 70, of 103 Eighth St., shared the nervousness of her neighbors over the string of arsons.
“When I hear a noise, I get up and look,” she said. “You’re just afraid to go out, even to the grocery store.”
Riley was staying with her daughters in Tennessee and Kentucky since early September, shortly before Hurricane Irma hit. But she returned in late October shortly after the house across the street burned.
“When I heard that one caught fire, I said it’s time to come home,” said Riley, who added she wanted to protect her home because arsonists were targeting unoccupied houses.
Kevin Bouffard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 863-401-6980.