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Much of Chicago burned last year, not just the Loop, with a big rise in arson cases

Arsons were up nearly 65%, a Sun-Times analysis finds. Hardest hit: the South Side and the West Side. Even during post-George Floyd riots, most arsons were linked to gangs. And it’s not just Chicago.

Chicago firefighters surveying a garage destroyed by arson on Oct. 4 in the 2200 block of North Rockwell Street.
Chicago firefighters surveying a garage destroyed by arson on Oct. 4 in the 2200 block of North Rockwell Street.
Provided

It was one of the searing images of the rioting in downtown Chicago last summer: a man wearing a Joker mask standing in front of a police sport-utility vehicle engulfed in flames.

The graffiti-strewn SUV was one of seven Chicago Police Department vehicles and one CTA vehicle torched in the Loop last May 30. More than 60 other arson fires were reported across the city over the next few days of anti-police rioting sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis after a white police officer kept his knee on the neck of Floyd, who was Black.

The fires set downtown by rioters after Floyd’s death were only one element, though, in a year that saw a major increase in arson. Over the course of 2020, hundreds of other arson fires were reported in Chicago. The number of fires authorities deemed suspicious was up nearly 65% last year over 2019, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of city crime data shows.

“With a 65% increase, you have a problem,” says Matthew Smith, executive director of the Washington-based Coalition Against Insurance Fraud.

Federal authorities charged Timothy O’Donnell with setting fire to this Chicago police SUV last May 30 in the Loop while wearing a Joker mask.
Federal authorities charged Timothy O’Donnell with setting fire to this Chicago police SUV last May 30 in the Loop while wearing a Joker mask.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Smith’s organization tracks arsons across the country, looking for patterns of fires set to collect insurance payouts. His group is doing a national study to see whether there’s a link between the coronavirus pandemic and fires set for fraudulent purposes.

“After the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, we saw a dramatic spike occur in real estate fires and auto fires and autos ending up at the bottom of lakes and rivers,” Smith says. “In looking at the FBI’s statistics and what we are hearing, there is an increase in arson across the country.”

It’s unclear how much of a role insurance fraud played in Chicago’s sharp rise in arsons.

The police say they think many of the arsons last year were fires set by homeless people, by people who were angry and lashing out and by others involved in rioting or gang-related activities.

A Sun-Times review of 25 cases in which people have been charged with arson in connection with fires last year in Chicago didn’t find any fraud allegations.

Altogether, 583 arsons were reported last year in Chicago compared with 375 in 2019, 373 in 2018, 444 in 2017 and 516 in 2016. Chicago also saw huge spikes in the number of murders and shootings last year and in 2016.

Eleven of last year’s arson arrests involved people charged with setting vehicles on fire. Most of those cases appeared to involve suspects angry at the owners of the vehicles.

Jacob Fagundo, 22, appears to be the only person the Chicago police arrested on charges of torching a Chicago Police Department vehicle last May 30 in the Loop.

But federal authorities say another man, Timothy O’Donnell, 31, was the villain in the Joker mask. They’ve charged him with placing a lighted object in the gas tank of a Chicago police SUV that burned in the 200 block of North State Street on May 30.

Last year’s arson arrests also included four people accused of setting garage fires and four accused of starting fires inside buildings.

Two others were arrested for setting fires in businesses — including a Jewel-Osco store at 87th and State streets on July 30 and a convenience store at a Gulf gas station at 8649 S. Ashland Ave. on Nov. 28. Neither fire caused serious damage. Those fires don’t appear to be connected to any political demonstrations or rioting.

Four people were arrested on suspicion of setting fire to garbage cans.

Most of the nearly 70 arsons during the unrest in late May and early June didn’t happen downtown but in other neighborhoods.

Dozens of convenience stores and retail shops were hit by arsonists, along with five department stores, five groceries, two churches, a currency exchange, a car dealership, a bank, a bar, a barbershop, a carwash and a drugstore. Most of those fires were set on May 31 and June 1.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is leading the investigation of the arsons that occurred in Chicago between May 30 and June 4. Police say they’re continuing to work with ATF on those cases and that there’s no evidence any of those arsons was the result of fraud.

During the rest of 2020, when there were no riots, the South Side and West Side were hit the hardest by arsonists. The police district with the most arsons was Deering, which includes Bridgeport and Back of the Yards, followed by the West Side’s Harrison District, which includes West Garfield Park. Police attribute many of those fires to gang activity.

One of the most potentially dangerous fires was in Homan Square on Feb. 20, 2020, when the police say 38-year-old Precious Hinton used lighter fluid to set fire to a row house in the 900 block of South Lawndale Avenue where she was squatting.

Three apartments were destroyed and a man was injured when he jumped from a second-floor window during a fire on Feb. 20, 2020, in the 900 block of South Lawndale Avenue that fire officials said was set by an arsonist.
Three apartments were destroyed and a man was injured when he jumped from a second-floor window during a fire on Feb. 20, 2020, in the 900 block of South Lawndale Avenue that fire officials said was set by an arsonist.
Chicago Fire Department

A 63-year-old man jumped from a second-story window there to escape the fire, suffering minor injuries, and three apartments were damaged, officials say.

A neighbor recorded Hinton on a cellphone video saying she set the fire to get away from the devil, according to footage aired on WGN-TV. Court-ordered psychiatric services were ordered for Hinton, who’s in jail awaiting trial, court records show.

In another dramatic case, Luis Ramirez, 54, is accused of setting fire last Oct. 4 to boxes that were sticking out of a trash can in an alley in the 2200 block of North Rockwell Street. A garage caught fire, destroying a 2012 Audi Q5 SUV and causing gasoline cans and propane canisters to explode.

“It went off like a bomb,” says Matthew Denny, who ran out of his Logan Square home after his alarm system went off and saw flames he estimates were 30 feet high.

A surveillance camera showed someone setting fire to Matthew Denny’s trash can in an alley in the 2200 block of North Rockwell Street on Oct. 4.
A surveillance camera showed someone setting fire to Matthew Denny’s trash can in an alley in the 2200 block of North Rockwell Street on Oct. 4.
Provided

Ramirez was arrested Oct. 15 in Wicker Park after a city Department of Streets and Sanitation worker saw a man matching the description of the arsonist, Denny says.

Matthew Denny’s Audi Q5 was incinerated in an arson in the detached garage of his Logan Square home on Oct. 4.
Matthew Denny’s Audi Q5 was incinerated in an arson in the detached garage of his Logan Square home on Oct. 4.
Provided

“I’m not giving this guy a pass, but I don’t think he was trying to hurt anybody,” Denny says of Ramirez, who says he’s still willing to testify against him.

Denny says his insurance company replaced his car and rebuilt his garage for about $40,000.

Mathew Denny in front of his garage, which was destroyed by fire that authorities suspect was the work of an arsonist.
Mathew Denny in front of his garage, which was destroyed by fire that authorities suspect was the work of an arsonist.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Lincoln Park also was hit with a series of arson fires.

David Adkison, a lawyer, says a trash fire set about 5 a.m. on July 30 in the alley behind his Lincoln Park condo caused slight damage to his brick garage but destroyed a neighbor’s wooden one.

Juan Escobar, 44, of Palatine, is accused of setting that fire and others in the area to “calm himself down,” according to prosecutors. They say surveillance videos showed Escobar setting the July 30 fire and another one on June 29. He was arrested while riding a bike on a sidewalk near a dog park, according to a police report.

Police say an arsonist set a fire that damaged garages last July 30 in an alley in the 2600 block of North Orchard Street in Lincoln Park.
Police say an arsonist set a fire that damaged garages last July 30 in an alley in the 2600 block of North Orchard Street in Lincoln Park.
Provided

“It was just one of those crazy things that happens in the city,” Adkison says. “It’s concerning, don’t get me wrong. I was pretty happy when they caught the guy.”

The majority of last year’s arsons didn’t result in an arrest. Police say they made 55 arson-related arrests last year involving people suspected of arson or criminal damage to property as well as convicted arsonists who failed to register their addresses with the police department.