Saturday, May 17, 2008

Arson suspect held in Florida wildfire case

Sarah Lundy

Sentinel Staff Writer

1:09 PM EDT, May 14, 2008

Palm Bay police hope to question a suspect they believe may be connected to at least one of the wildfire arsons in Brevard County.

Brian Crowder, 31, of Palm Bay was taken into custody this morning after he fled from officers.

The incident began around 4:20 a.m. when a resident near El Dorado Avenue and Jupiter Boulevard called police after seeing a man in a dark colored vehicle -- with distinctive stickers on it - throw something from his window into the woods.

Moments later the dried out plants erupted in flames, Palm Bay Police Chief Bill Berger said during a 10 a.m. press conference. (See photos from the press conference and of the brushfires in Brevard.)

Firefighters responded immediately and doused the 10-foot by 10-foot burning area with water, while police officers searched for the man in the car.

The fire was out within moments and police officers now had confirmation that their suspicions were true - an arsonist was on the loose. In the burned out foliage, investigators found a glass bottle that had once been full of flammable liquid. The item that a witness allegedly saw the man throw from his car.

An officer found the dark-colored vehicle and attempted to stop it. The driver bailed and fled. Police located the car's owner who told authorities that he had lent the vehicle to Crowder. By 7 a.m. officers spotted Crowder near the 500 block of Breakwater Street, Berger said.

About 60 police officers descended on the wooded area, the police helicopter was soon circling and the K-9 unit began tracking Crowder. The dogs found him and helped bring him into custody after an hour and a half search.

Crowder was bitten a couple of times on his legs by the dogs and suffered a minor injury on his face, Berger said. Crowder was taken to Palm Bay Community Hospital for treatment before authorities are able to interview him.

"Now the hard work begins," Berger said. "In CSI it's 43 minutes and the hard work is over," not exactly the reality Palm Bay investigators are tasked with completing.

Officials did not indicate whether they are searching for any other suspects in the other fires, but said Crowder is the suspect in this morning's fire.

This is not Crowder's first time in trouble.

In 2002, he was sentenced to five years in prison for grand theft of a motor vehicle and burglary. He was released in August 2005 and returned to Palm Bay on probation. In September, he failed a drug test and violated his probation. He was arrested and later released from jail. The next month he failed to report to his probation officer.

A warrant for his arrest was issued on Nov. 1, according to Department of Corrections.

Gov. Charlie Crist heard about Crowder while at the Governor's Hurricane Conference in Fort Lauderdale this morning.

"It's unconscionable to me that someone would want to intentionally put our fellow Floridians in harm's way by lighting a fire," he said. "It's outrageous. It's just hard to comprehend."

Crist praised the "aggressive pursuit of law enforcement" and hopes that the suspect or anyone else would do such thing is "prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. That's why we have jails."

He further asked the almost 20 million Floridians to keep their eyes open for anyone else might try to set blazes during this dry season.

"If they see anything that looks suspect, they should let local law enforcement know," he said.

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