Good police work, fire investigation, quickly halt SE Arson spree

18 hours after the last truck firebombing, police arrest three suspected arsonists. Was this a terrorist attack? Were radicals making a political statement? Find out right here‚

Arson K-9 Chyenne and handler, PF&R Fire Investigator Rick Aragon, search for clues at the SE Tolman St. firebombing of a Honda Element.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
As the number of vehicles torched and burned beyond repair‚ including a vehicle fire that sets an occupied home ablaze‚ increased to seven during the nights of May 22 and 23, so did the fears of Southeast Portland residents.

Vehicle owners, especially those of Hondas and other compact SUVs, wonder if they were being targeted by eco-terrorists, or perhaps a band of thugs with a brand-specific vendetta.

“My half-ton pickup truck burns a lot more fuel than my neighbor’s Honda Element did,” Jim Cornetta told us as he looked down SE Tolman Street at the charred Honda being examined by fire inspectors on May 23. “I wonder if I should stay up tonight and keep watch.”

This Honda was found alaze on SE Raymond Street. By the time firefighters extinguish the flames, the car is destroyed.

Fiery path of destruction
Until the firebugs were caught, citizens had good reason to worry. In the wee hours of May 22, three Honda CRV sub-SUVs and 1 Ford Ranger were targeted. Three more were burned the following night.

“Looking at the times and locations, it wasn’t difficult to see the arsonists’ path,” Portland Fire & Rescue’s Lt. Allen Oswalt told us. He read from the record: SE 66th at 4:24 am; 75th & Division at 4:42 am; SE 75th‚ firefighters found this Honda CRV fully involved in flames, only five feet from a house at 4:52 am; then, another, at SE 36th and Raymond at 5:24 am.

Early the following morning two vehicles just inside Clackamas County were torched, as was that Honda Element on SE Tolman Street.

Immediate investigation begins
As the sun came up on May 22, the Metro Arson Task Force fanned out across Southeast Portland. Working throughout the day and night, they inspected burned vehicles, took samples and wrote reports at each arson site. “The first fire started in a pickup truck,” said Oswalt, “but went out on its own.”

We saw an official accelerant-sniffing dog, Cheyenne, with PF&R handler, Fire Investigator Rick Aragon, gathering evidence. “The task force is made up of investigators from Portland Fire & Rescue, Portland Police Bureau, the federal ATF, and the FBI,” Oswalt commented.

An arson investigator leaves a burned Honda Element as he goes to file his report. All but one of the vehicles in the SE Portland arson spree were charred beyond repair.

Neighbors provide valuable leads
Investigators pored through clues given them by witnesses of the blazes. Lists of possible getaway vehicle descriptions were created and distributed.

Portland Police Bureau’s Southeast Precinct assigned detectives and undercover officers; uniformed patrol officers were put on alert as the hunt for the arsonists continued.

A little before midnight on May 23, SE Precinct officers Tashia Hager and Nichole Green were dispatched on a vandalism call in the 6100 block of SE Lexington Street. On-scene, they spotted a car suspected of being involved in the fire-bombings. As Hager and Green questioned the car’s occupants, they learned “information” which potentially connected these subjects to the vehicle arsons. The possible firebugs were turned over to arson investigators.

Police say they suspect Dennis Panichello and Lena Thi Son of torching vehicles across SE Portland.

Suspected arsonists arrested
As dawn broke May 24, the Metro Arson Task Force announced three arrests in the case.

Authorities said they are bringing a variety of charges against the three associated with that car: 27-year-old Dennis Panichello, 19-year-old Lena Thi Son, and a 14-year old juvenile, whose name is withheld to due to age.

Apart from the apparent desire to set vehicles on fire, authorities said the trio of suspects had no political or social motive.

Dennis Panichello’s father publicly blamed “the system” for his son’s problems‚ saying his son needed mental health care, but the young man’s probation officer didn’t help him get treatment.

Suspects face multiple charges
The charges leveled at the suspects are substantial. They include one “Measure 11” count of Arson I; that carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years, if convicted. This charge is being brought, authorities say, because two residents were in the nearby home set ablaze by one of the burning vehicles.

Other charges include seven counts of Arson II, and one count of Criminal Mischief I. Total prison time could total 26 years, and total fines could mount up to over $500,000.

©2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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