Johannesburg - His crime spree is best seen from the air.
That is, from a helicopter hovering above the northern suburbs of Johannesburg where his handiwork can be picked out between the lush gardens and the spacious properties.
There are the roofless guttered houses, the blackened rooms of partially damaged homes and the residences that survived fire and are now undergoing reconstruction.
All are tucked away in suburbs like Hydepark, Rosebank, Benmore and Craighall Park.
Each one of these burnt out houses is suspected to be the work of an arsonist, who cares little for stealing property but appears to be becoming more brazen and dangerous.
For two years, some suspect he has hunted these suburbs, and now security companies and police are out to catch him.
The latest incentive is a reward of R100,000 for any information that leads to his arrest.
The suspected arsonist is believed to have targeted at least 14 homes and there could be more.
On Thursday the Saturday Star newspaper was invited by Fidelity services group, the company that is offering the reward, to fly in one of it helicopters to see the damage the arsonist is believed to have done.
What became quickly apparent, peering down from the helicopter, is how close these targeted homes are to one another.
Many of them lie in a cluster within a .5 km radius of each other. Two of the burnt out houses even neighbour each other. And were burnt on the same night.
“The one guy kept on saying that it was an electrical fault, but he found more evidence later and believes it is the guy,” said the founder of the community crime fighting initiative E-blockwatch Andre Snyman.
The central point of the crime spree is where Jan Smuts avenue becomes William Nicol drive, most of his work appears to fall within 2 km of that point.
The helicopter flight provides another insight.
The suspected arsonist likes upmarket houses in well to do suburbs. Homes he is suspected to have set fire to are worth tens of millions of rands and are multi-stored.
To get to them he has had to scale high walls, bypassed alarm systems and side step security companies. In one incident he apparently was in the house when the security company was called. The security company didn’t have access to the inside of the house.
Even though he has been careful he has been caught on CCTV. What those images have revealed is a young man with a dark complexion, who is probably in his mid to late 20s. He is also athletic and dresses well.
What is concerning is that recently it is suspected he has become more violent.
Last month he is suspected to have gained entrance to a house in lower Houghton and to have beaten up the elderly homeowner. The house was then set alight. The home owner was saved when a security guard broke down the door to get to him. This was the second known attack on elderly homeowners.
What has been recently discovered about the lower Houghton attack is that he fled to the neighbouring property and appears to have watched the fire while eating fruit and drinking wine he had stolen from the house he had just set alight.
“My initial suspicion is that we were dealing with two different people,” said Josh Nel, branch manager for Fidelity. “The one person goes out of his way to avoid people and other engaging in attempted murder with arson.”
Nel says there are two distinct modus operandi. The first is someone who breaks in and spends a lot of time in the house, often as long as seven hours at a stretch. He helps himself to the fridge, urinates in dustbins and sometimes even cooks. The man rarely steals anything of value. Early CCTV footage even reveals him wearing a pair of headphones.
The second MO is of a suspect who preys on the elderly, assaulting them and telling them they are going to die, just before he locks them in and sets the room on fire.
However one of the recent assault victims has identified an earlier image of the man when he was caught on CCTV while in a kitchen. On that occasion he didn’t light a fire.
“It appears that he is taking some pride out of this,” Nel said.
But law enforcement is mobilising and security companies in the area are hunting the suspect.
Police have also appealed for anyone who has information to come forward. SAPS spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Mavela Masondo said that police had more than five cases of house breaking/ robberies and arson that they were investigating in the Johannesburg area.
“The dockets are being taken over by the Provincial Investigation Unit for further investigation. No arrests have been made thus far but police are following the leads,” he said.
E-blockwatch, in an effort to alert residents to the suspected arsonist and provide more information about the crimes, are appealing to people to register through the website or scan the code that appears on the paper.
Against the arsonist is now an arsenal of helicopters, drones and night vision technology. But Nel believes that old fashion police work will eventually catch him. And a favourite of this is the old fashioned tip off.
“Somebody knows about him, he is not the kind of guy who keeps a secret.”
Anyone who has information that could lead to an arrest and the reward, can contact 0839390300.