Alleged serial arsonist identifiedPosted: Updated:
PHOENIX – Police have arrested one person in connection with a string of nearly 100 fires that has terrorized a Phoenix neighborhood for more than a year. Investigators believe there are others still on the loose.
Firefighters were called out to the area of 14th and Roosevelt streets for a series of 10 fires early Friday morning. The most destructive of those fires ripped through several units of a small apartment complex. Most of the other fires were in Dumpsters and trash bins. One was in a U-Haul truck across the street from the burning apartments.
As firefighters were dealing with the first smaller blazes, police who in the neighborhood to assist spotted a suspicious-looking young man lighting a couch on fire and then running from the scene. That man has been identified as Christian Jose Valdivia. Officers arrested him after a short chase. He had a lighter in his possession when he was taken into custody.
Investigators believe Valdivia, 22, is part of a ring or group of arsonists responsible for more than 90 fires in the area between Seventh and 16th streets and Roosevelt and Van Buren streets over the last 18 months. Most of the fires were relatively small, but some, like Friday fire, spread to nearby buildings.
“The neighborhood really has lived in fear for this type of incident – middle of the night, fires are breaking out near your apartment building, fire extending to the structure,” said Capt. Scott Walker of the Phoenix Fire Department. “Easily, somebody could have lost their life.”
Walker said somebody nearly was killed in one of these fires last month.
“If our crews hadn’t been literally just around the corner when that fire started, they probably would not have been able to get in there in time to save her,” he said.
Friday morning’s fire badly damaged at least three apartments and forced a total of 16 people, seven of them children and one a pregnant woman who is due any day, to run for their lives. All of them got out safely. Red Cross volunteers responded to the scene to help those three families.
"I'm angry," said resident Yesenia Huerta, who will give birth any time now. "You never know what could have happened." Huerta lost everything she had for the new baby, as well as back-to-school things she had for her other two children.
The fire spread to the apartment building from the couch investigators believe Valdivia torched.
While firefighters were busy dousing the flames at the apartment complex, two more fires cropped up around the corner.
Police do not believe Valdivia was working alone. The timing of the fires indicates that at least one other person was involved in setting those blazes.
“We know there are more [suspects] out there,” Walker said. "Unfortunately, this seems to be some people's type of sick fun or enjoyment."
Detectives are hoping Valdivia will lead them to his accomplice or accomplices. He has been booked into Maricopa County Jail on one count of arson of an occupied structure and one count of resisting arrest. Additional charges are pending.
Anyone who may have information concerning these fires or knows who the suspect/s might be, is encouraged to call the Phoenix Fire Department Arson Investigation Unit at 602-262-6774 or Silent Witness at either 480-WITNESS or 480-TESTIGO.