Johannesburg - A suspected arsonist is preying on upmarket homes in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg and the fear is that he is getting more dangerous.
On Thursday morning it appeared he struck again, this time setting a double-storey house alight in lower Houghton.
A security guard was able to save the elderly owner when he broke the door down to the room where he had been locked in. The owner had been beaten up and had to be taken to hospital.
The fire caused extensive damage. It is believed that this his second arson attack in a week and the latest in a crime spree that possibly began two years ago.
In that time he has shown a liking for multi-million rand double storey houses in plush suburbs across Joburg’s “Parks”, including Hydepark, Houghton, Benmore Gardens and Craighall Park. He leaves his victims traumatised and fearing that he will return.
The upmarket arsonist is careful, his victims point out. He avoids security cameras and doesn’t trip alarm systems. But he hasn’t been careful enough; CCTV cameras have captured images of him. What they show is a slim, clean-shaven man with a dark complexion, who is possibly in his mid 20s.
From his habits and exploits, victims and at least one community crime-fighting activist have been able to glean more about his abilities and character.
“He's obviously an athletic guy, because a lot of the time he comes down through the roof,” said Andre Snyman, the owner of the community crime-fighting platform Eblockwatch. “And he appears to be a loner.”
He is also confident, spending long periods of time in houses where he makes himself at home, often helping himself to the fridge as family members sleep elsewhere in the house.
Sometimes he even cooks and has a habit of urinating in bins. “He basically jolled in my house for two and half hours,” said a home owner of one of the houses the suspected arsonist targeted early last year.
Before entering the house the man had climbed onto the roof where he sat for several hours in the early morning drinking a six-pack of ciders he had brought with him.
He then broke a window and sneaked into the house as the family slept. Opening the fridge, he took a jar of sun dried tomatoes and smeared some of it on the curtains.
The arsonist then started a fire in one of the rooms. “In that room were 42kg gas canisters. On the floor above, my daughter was sleeping. He has no regard; he is a sociopath,” said the owner who wanted to remain anonymous.
The family were saved when the domestic worker noticed the fire in the room and raised the alarm. “According to the insurance, another five to ten minutes and we would have lost the house. This guy is a total nutter.”
The arsonist did steal a couple of items, but as with his other suspected crimes, it doesn’t appear to be his main goal. “He goes after the same sort of houses. It is like he goes in and sort of lives the life, gets p**sed-off and sets fire to the place,” said the victim.
Snyman has been following the arsonist for a while, and believes that the first incident could have happened about two years ago. Since then, Snyman suspects there have been at least 14 incidents.
“I believe this guy watches people for some time before he strikes,” he said. “But now he seems to be pushing the envelope.”
He is getting more violent. In December, in an attack attributed to the arsonist, an elderly couple were badly beaten up in their home in Bryanston. He used a stick and a chair. He broke the husband’s nose before taking a lighter and setting the room alight.
“He told us that we are going to burn to death,” said the homeowner who is in his mid-80s, and didn’t want to give his name. “My son in law and my neighbour came across and got us out just in time.”
Another family, from Benmore Gardens, were out of town when the suspected arsonist struck in July last year. A security company alerted them at 5 o’clock in the morning that their house was on fire.
They returned home to find that the intruder had smashed a window to get in. The west wing of their house was gutted. This time the arsonist had started the fire by setting alight a pile of teddy bears.
“We had a strange thing happen. There was a guy watching the fire from across the road. And when the police arrived, he went into the house with them. It could have been him,” said the owner, who, like the others, didn’t want to give her name.
Police are appealing for more information about the suspected arsonist. The spokesperson for Rosebank police station, Warrant Officer Bongi Mdletshe, said that they had three recent home fires in their precinct. Two were in Dunkeld and one in Saxonwold.
“We could not link them to anyone and there was no proof that they were started by someone. Some security companies have photos of someone jumping into these properties which have not been given to us.
“So, as soon as this comes to us, we will change all these inquiry dockets to arson. If a suspect is identified then we will deal with him.”
The Norwood police station is investigating a charge of arson and house robbery following the fire and assault at the lower Houghton house on Thursday morning. Detectives are working through CCTV footage from the area.
As with the Rosebank police station cases, the appeal is for anyone who knows of the crime to come forward. Sergeant Eric Masotsha, the spokesperson for Norwood police station, said it was unclear as yet if there was more than one suspect.
He added that there had been a similar case in Houghton the year before last.
Snyman, in an effort to provide residents with more information about the arsonist, has set up a special section on the Eblockwatch website. The concern is that time is running out.
“My fear is that someone is going to lose their life,” said the homeowner where the arsonist had sat on the roof drinking cider.