Officials ask for public's help after fires near Hill Rise Drive

A shed behind an occupied duplex on Terrace View Drive, destroyed in a fire Saturday, shows a "progression in severity" of the fires, officials said.
A shed behind an occupied duplex on Terrace View Drive, destroyed in a fire Saturday, shows a "progression in severity" of the fires, officials said. Herald-Leader

Jeffery Yarberry, who lives in The Preakness apartments on Hill Rise Drive, had just made a deal to sell his 1994 Chevrolet Beretta when someone set the car on fire.

It was the third of what would grow to become eight arsons in neighborhoods off Versailles Road, but it was the first time investigators realized the fires might amount to more than just troublemakers setting trash ablaze.

The first two fires were set in large trash bins, fire officials said at a community meeting Monday. The next three were set in vehicles in the parking lot within minutes of one another on Dec. 16. A fourth car was damaged.

"I looked out my bedroom window, and there sat my car with flames shooting about eight or 10 feet high out of it," recalled Yarberry, whose car was destroyed.

A fire was later set in a vacant apartment, and another in a recreational vehicle.

On Saturday, a fire set in a shed spread to an occupied duplex on nearby Terrace View Drive, heavily damaging it. No one was injured.

That "progression in severity" is what concerns firefighters most, said Maj. Mark Blankenship, the Lexington fire department's lead arson investigator.

"I take it personally, not only because it is affecting you all, putting your lives at great risk, but it also endangers our lives, the firefighters that make those responses," he said.

Blankenship was joined by more than a dozen officials, including interim fire Chief Keith Jackson, fire Maj. Ed Davis, police Chief Ronnie Bastin and police Commander Kelli Edwards, at a community meeting at The Preakness on Monday night. The meeting was organized by Urban County Council member Peggy Henson.

About 50 residents and neighbors attended the meeting, concerned that the arsonist or arsonists had not been caught.

For the first time, officials laid out much of their case publicly, hoping community members could help them identify a culprit and keep an eye out for suspicious activity.

With the exception of the apartment fire, each of the fires have been set between 1 and 5 a.m. They all have occurred within several blocks of one another, leading investigators to think the fire starter lives in the area and might not own a car.

"As tightly grouped as they are geographically ... it's more than likely somebody that lives up here," Blankenship said. "This isn't somebody coming in here just to do it to this area."

The windows of the cars were broken out, so the arsonist might have been toting a baseball bat. Anyone carrying a gas can or lighter fluid also would be suspicious.

Several witnesses have given police and firefighters the same vague description of a person they have seen acting suspiciously in the area. The man is consistently described as in his 30s and about 6 feet tall.

Each of the witnesses has commented on the man's white shoes. "For whatever reason, the thing that sticks out with this person is those shoes," Blankenship said.

In response to a recent increase in drug-related crime, police already had more patrol officers in the area.

"I can assure you that the Terrace View, Hill Rise (and) Whitney Woods neighborhoods are getting more attention than probably about any place in town," Edwards said.

Officials urged residents to call 911 if they see something suspicious. Even if it isn't related to an arson, it might help solve another crime, he said.

Several people signed up to join a volunteer neighborhood watch organized by The Preakness management. The first to sign up was Yarberry, who said everyone in the neighborhood is on edge, hoping the next thing to burn won't be their homes.

"It can actually consume a person, the fear, because they never know where it could come next," he said.

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