Juvenile arson cases on the rise in Palm Beach County

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. - It's not just the 30-year-old man driving around with a gasoline can in his trunk who worries veteran arson investigator Tom Fucci these days.

Increasingly, the veteran Palm Beach County Fire Rescue arson investigator finds himself stressing over the middle school-age boy sitting in his bedroom holding a match in his hand, or 3-year-old boy wondering what could happen with that butane lighter on the table.

Be it mischief, peer pressure or just plain curiosity, Fucci says, "the number of juveniles that are starting fires has increased exponentially."

While the overall countywide number of reported arsons is running about average this year - 76 from Jan. 1 to May 1 - the number of kids setting them mirrors statewide statistics: About 35 percent of all arsons are caused by children younger than 17. Of those, 83 percent are caused by boys, and 40 percent are started in a boy's bedroom.

Fire officials from West Palm Beach to Tallahassee want the public to take those disturbing facts more seriously.

In Palm Beach County, authorities have begun pushing an intervention program to make sure juvenile arsonists don't become adult arsonists. And this month, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater focused Arson Awareness Week on reversing the trend.

"Most people view arson as a property crime and say, 'Oh, well,' and that's it," Fucci said. "That's the wrong type of attitude to have, and that's the behavior that we're trying to modify," especially when it comes to juvenile arsons.

The numbers bear out those concerns: Last year, the state Fire Marshal's Office made 316 arson-­related arrests. Of those cases, 77 were criminal arson cases involving juveniles that resulted in 126 juvenile arrests.

"One of the things we tell parents is you can kill more people with a match than you can with a gun," Fucci said. "With a fire, there is no way of controlling it."

Curiosity drives fires

But parents can control children, said Debra Cox, spokeswoman for the Fire Marshal's Office.

And they can help prevent youth from setting fires such as a Feb. 26 blaze that caused $15,000 in damage to a Riviera Beach apartment.

Cox said the fire marshal investigation found that two children were home with their babysitter at the time when one of the children started playing with a lighter. The juvenile set fire to a mattress. By the time firefighters arrived to extinguish it, the damage was done.

Juveniles are often impressionable, so "these incidents do not always involve a malicious intent," Cox said.

Indeed, most of the children who are setting fires are between ages 11 and 14 and are driven by curiosity.

Late last month, for example, county fire-­rescue crews responded to a brush fire a child set at Mandarin and Hamlin boulevards in Loxahatchee.

Witnesses told arson investigators that they saw a child get off a school bus, casually walk over to a nearby wooded area, start a fire, and then casually walk away.

The child responsible for setting the fire turned out to be an Osceola Creek Middle School student. The student has not been arrested while the investigation continues, Fucci said.

Four under-7s referred

For most juvenile arsonists, investigators say it's their first offense. They are either curious about, or peer-pressured into, playing with fire.

That doesn't mean authorities are leaving it all to parents, however.

A child can be referred to local law enforcement's Juvenile First Offender Program. And in rare cases, the juvenile can be arrested for the arson.

For children at least 7 years old, however, authorities prefer to force the young arsonist into the Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Program - which requires the child to attend classes to learn the dangers of setting fires.

It's basically their "get out of jail" card, Fucci said.

Through April this year, four juveniles were referred to the program. They are all under the age of 7.

From January to September 2011, 15 juveniles were referred to the program. They, too, were all under the age of 7.

Arson investigators recognize that younger kids between the ages of 4 and 8 who set the fires do it out of pure curiosity.

But, they added, it's when the deed is not noticed and not taken care of that the child grows up and commits more arsons.

Still, parents don't always think arsons are as serious as authorities know they are.

In early April, county fire-rescue crews extinguished a fire set at a 99 Cent store in suburban Boca Raton. A 3-year-old boy was playing with a barbecue lighter, and lit some of the items on a shelf on fire. The store's clerk noticed flames shooting up in the air and quickly evacuated the store.

Although surveillance video showed the toddler lighting the items on fire, his parents initially denied that it was their son who was the arsonist.

While Fucci wanted the boy to attend the firesetter program, he could not force the child to enroll. That's because state law exempts children under age 7 from the program. When Fucci asked the

parents to enroll the boy anyway, they said no.

"It's situations like that, that are very frustrating," he said. "Starting fires is not only dangerous, it's wrong.

"What do you do?" he said. "It's our biggest problem."

Condo repeatedly hit

To help keep track of these young arsonists, many county agencies - including Palm Beach County - have combined to produce a database listing all the juveniles who have been involved in an arson. That way, if they move or are investigated again, they can be identified.

Still, Cox and other fire officials would rather take the early intervention route, so that adult arsonists aren't created.

She offered the example of a 35-year-old man, George Dale Jr., who in late March was arrested on an arson charge after he started a small brush fire near the North Palm Beach Police Department headquarters.

The man confessed to starting the fire, which spread to the department's fence before it was put out.

Far more frightening, Fucci said, was a "serial arsonist" who set at least four fires at a suburban West Palm Beach condominium building in late April.

The arsonist started with setting the victim's truck on fire twice. When that didn't get much attention, the arsonist next set the whole condo on fire, injuring one person.

A day later, the arsonist - who has not been arrested - destroyed the victim's apartment while people slept in the building. No one was hurt.

"They are violent people," Fucci said. "Arson is a violent crime."

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