Deadly fire, arsons investigated

The aftermath of the fatal fire on State Ave.
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10 p.m. update - Detectives are questioning two people that may be connected to the arsons. It is not known if they are suspects in the morning's arsons.

INDIANAPOLIS - Arson investigators are looking into a rash of fires on the near southeast side, including one that killed a 63-year-old woman.

There were a total of ten fires overnight. Starting with the fire on North Dearborn just after midnight, there were five fires before 1:00 am. Then, beginning at 3:15 am on North Delaware, three more fires started in the next hour and a half.

At about 6:00 am, the last two fires happened on State and Prospect and on South Meridian. The fire on State and Prospect killed a woman and seriously injured her son, who is a paraplegic.

The calls started pouring in just after midnight. By Tuesday morning, ten buildings were damaged by fire.

"It's getting bigger and bigger. It's catching all three houses on fire. It's on Karcher and Meridian, hurry up!" one caller told dispatchers.

On South State Avenue even the two-minute response time wasn't fast enough. 63-year-old Anna Richards died. Her 47-year-old paraplegic son was critically injured.

"I heard her say 'house on fire' and we go to get my mom out and can't find her. Go to get my brother out of bed and can't lift him up and he caught on fire," said Mary Whitlock, who lived in the home with her family.

So in addition to arson and ATF, homicide detectives joined the investigation. Officers went door-to-door appealing to the public for help.

Investigators are trying to see if there's a common thread that will link all of these fires together. One thing they're certain about: nine of the ten fires all involved either vacant homes or apartment buildings.

"Having people who live in the neighborhood buy houses is a really important part of making sure this kind of stuff doesn't happen again," said David Zimmell, resident. Because a house is vacant, "People kind of feel justified doing something to it, I suspect."

That justification is what scares neighbors like Barbara Thompson, who realizes any home can be a target.

"There is a vacant home right next to my granddaughter's home. What if they get that one and it catches her? Is she going to be able to get them babies out and downstairs. They got three of them," said Thompson.

Thompson has seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren that all live within shouting distance of her front porch. On most afternoons, they are right where she can keep an eye on them.

"It is scary. What if they get one of our houses? I'm ready for them to be caught," she said. "It's like they are sitting around, setting these places on fire and watching them. They are getting a thrill out of watching."

If the suspects are up late, she says, she will be, too, fighting fire with fire, armed only with a phone and a sense of duty.

"We are staying up late, because, I mean, if somebody doesn't catch who set the fires, that house, they could have just kept on burning. Burnt that house, burnt that house, burnt that house and come down here," Thompson said.

Thompson and her daughter also may have seen the suspects running from the house. They say it was two young men, dressed in black with black, hooded sweatshirts.

"There are a lot of young punks out here," she said.

Gloria Lambert says police may have a clue as to who did it.

"They asked me if I knew. They showed me a couple of pictures of a couple of young kids and asked me if I knew them," Lambert said.

She says the vacant homes in the neighborhood are the source of the problem.

"All of these empty houses around here. They need to do something," she said.

Police say the public may be their best tool in solving this. They want to hear from anyone who saw anything suspicious - a person, a vehicle, or anything else that might help lead them to whoever is responsible. Call Crime Stoppers at 262-TIPS.

See a list of all the fire incidents.