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Palm Bay Fla--Brush Fire Destroys House--Arson Suspected--Teens Questioned

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    Police Intend to Seek Felony Charges Suspected Teens

    Palm Bay police seek charges against 3 suspected fire starters

    By Victor Thompson

    PALM BAY -- Cheryl Willett's 18-year-old daughter slept Sunday afternoon as fire quickly surrounded her Elizabeth Street home on three sides and burned within inches of its wooden walls.

    If not for a firefighter knocking at the door, Willett said her daughter wouldn't have evacuated the home.

    But Patti Tallent's wooden home -- just a few yards east from Willett's on the same side of Elizabeth Street -- did not escape the flames and was totally consumed, leaving only the concrete foundation of her home and the melted remnants of a refrigerator, a mattress and a stove.

    Tallent and her family escaped without injury but the experience left Willett shaken.

    "I was just scared to death. I saw the smoke was coming from Elizabeth and I knew that my home was completely surrounded with my daughter inside," Willett said. "The home was saved by the grace of God."

    Palm Bay police did not charge the teens they think responsible for setting the fire. Instead, Detective Ernie Diebel said the department would recommend the three boys -- including a foster child under the supervision of the Department of Children and Families -- be prosecuted for committing a third-degree felony for the intentional or reckless burning of land.

    "We're still documenting the damage to the home. Each person in the home could be considered a victim and there are at least four different victims who suffered property damage," Diebel said. "This is generally the way I do it when we have young, juvenile fire setters."

    He said a final report will be turned over to the State Attorney's Office by the end of the week. Agency spokesman Barney Weiss said the youths could get anything from probation to juvenile detention.

    The boys had been playing with matches and gasoline in a back field, resulting in a blaze that burned 10 acres of brush in a neighborhood east of Eldron Boulevard between Entrada and Elizabeth streets, officials said. It also left Tallent homeless and damaged sheds and fences throughout the southeast Palm Bay community.

    The three boys -- one age 13 and two 12-year-olds, who police have not named --have no prior records, Weiss said.

    The 13-year-old boy involved with the fire said that he and his friends had been "bored" when they set Sunday's fire. He added that he was sorry Tallent's house burned down.

    American Red Cross spokeswoman Louise Theofanous said they are accepting donations for Tallent, who received assistance from the organization Sunday.

    Todd Mason, who lives across from where Tallent's home stood, said that whoever set the fire should be made to understand the consequences of their actions. A shed and the rear southwest corner of his backyard fence were destroyed and soot seeped into his home, he said.

    "I really don't blame the parents," Mason said. "But I think (the suspects) should take a peek at what they did."

    The law under which the boys could be charged is designed to protect forests from intentional fires, and carries a five-year sentence and a $5,000 penalty. David Koenig, chief of the juvenile intake division at the Brevard state attorney's office, said charges against the boys "would reflect upon what the Palm Bay (police) would develop as evidence, and whether we can prove the case without a reasonable doubt in front of a judge."

    Juveniles also may be eligible for Project Pay Back, a local program run out of the state attorney's office that provides job training and placement for young offenders while providing restitution to victims out of offenders' paychecks.

    "For accountability purposes, it's wonderful," said Laura Moody, the program's specialist. "We've had kids as young as 10 and juveniles who are paying restitution up into adulthood. When they get a job, 75 percent of their net income goes to the victim."

    Moody said that as of April this year, 3,041 juveniles have completed their restitution requirements through this program, which receives an average of $7,600 a month from young convicts. Only 1.3 percent of juveniles in the program since it began in July 1994 have committed a crime after participating, Moody said.

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  • Palm Bay Fla--Brush Fire Destroys House--Arson Suspected--Teens Questioned

    Police quiz teens about Palm Bay fire

    Blaze claims home, 10 acres

    By J.D. Gallop

    PALM BAY -- Patti Tallent stood on scorched grass Sunday evening and looked over the charred heap that was her wood-framed home.

    It was here the 43-year-old owner of a house-cleaning business lived for the last six years and it was here everything she owned burned to the ground in what investigators said was a case of three teenaged boys playing with gasoline in a nearby wooded area.

    "I just lost everything and it's gone," said Tallent, who was watching television in her living room Sunday afternoon when her son burst in and yelled that there was a fire.

    The blaze was first reported about 1:58 p.m. It destroyed the home and blackened nearly 10 acres in the residential area off of Eldron Boulevard and surrounding Entrada and Elizabeth streets. A breeze out of the west and dry underbrush quickly fueled the fire, started in a wooded field.

    No other homes were destroyed, although several did have damage to sheds or to surrounding wooden fences.

    "It spread very rapidly. Once the wind starts blowing, these fires just take off," Palm Bay Fire Chief Larry Hellmann said. "It appears there were children in the woods playing with matches and gasoline. They brought the gasoline from home."

    One of the boys, a foster child under the supervision of the Department of Children and Families, said he and two other neighborhood children had poured gasoline from a can into a plastic bowl and set in on fire.

    The 13-year-old said he and his friends had been bored when they walked into the woods and set the fire. They attempted to put it out with sand but the flames continued to spread. "I'm sorry, I didn't expect it to get out of control like that," the boy said as his caregiver stood nearby and listened.

    No arrests were made late Sunday.

    One firefighter was treated at a hospital after being overcome by the heat generated by the flames.

    Sunday's fires -- there was also another five-acre brush fire at Malabar and Minton roads -- were the latest in a string of blazes to hit the Palm Bay area in several days.

    It also followed a red-flag fire advisory issued by the National Weather in response to dry weather conditions in parts of Brevard. In addition to destroying Tallent's 1,100 square-foot home, the deliberately set fire burned away dry pine needles and caused palm scrubs to literally explode.

    The flames were seen lapping against several wooden fences and damaged several metal sheds in the area. Palm Bay firefighters, assisted by firemen from Melbourne, Brevard County Fire-Rescue, Malabar and the state Division of Forestry, had to rely mostly on well water since the area had not been connected to water and sewerage lines.

    Aston Heron, 42, was at a house on Entrada doing electrical work in the yard when he smelled smoke. He looked to the south and saw an orange wall of flames climbing over the pine trees behind the residence. He then ran in the house and told the residents

    "I put the hose on and I just got to work wetting the grass and the roof," Heron said, pointing to burned holes in a white picket fence in the backyard.

    Heron said he had seen the 13-year-old and his two friends playing basketball earlier before riding around in go-carts.

    One street over, 34-year-old Chris Anderson grabbed the hose to wet up the roof of his home near the intersection of Century and Elizabeth streets.

    "I had no idea it was going on," said Anderson, whose home sat in a direct path of the easterly moving flames and embers. For the next hour, he watched as brush trucks carved paths through the wooded area and tamed the fire into smoldering heaps of ash.

    By the end of the day, Anderson, wearing shorts and T-shirt, was covered with soot. Quietly looking over the destruction, Anderson found time to take a small break. "I've been hosing for the last hour. Just having a beer now," he said.

    Hellmann urged residents in Palm Bay -- a city blanketed with palm trees, pines and acres of undeveloped forests -- to be sure there is a clearance of at least 20 to 25 feet between their property and any brush.

    Firefighters remained at the scene of the fires late Sunday, putting out hotspots and watering the surrounding grass. But for Tallent, much of the hard work by firefighters came too late. The flames from the brush fire crept into her attic and engulfed the single family dwelling within 20 minutes. The only recognizable remains in the smoldering heap were a twisted metal bed-frame and a tin roof from a porch.

    When told about the teens suspected of starting the fire, Tallent shook her head.

    "You don't want to know my thoughts on that," Tallent said.

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