Police investigating possible arson in Belding

Posted by Cory Smith • Last Updated 9:57 am on Friday, August 10 2012

Det. Sgt. Trever Slater with the Michigan State Police Fire Investigations Unit takes verbal notes on his voice recorder Thursday afternoon while investigating a pickup truck that was destroyed in a fire Aug. 8 at 1308 Oakwood St. in Belding. — Daily News/Cory Smith

BELDING — After three fires in the span of one week at her residence, Belding resident Deb Souza is now wondering if she can leave her home without having to worry about a fourth fire occurring on her property.

At approximately 4 a.m. Aug. 2, firefighters were called to 1308 Oakwood St. in Belding to the scene of a small fire of a mobile car port in Souza’s driveway after a neighbor spotted the fire.

Less than one week later, at approximately 2:30 a.m. Aug. 8, authorities were called to the property again as the rear portion of that same mobile car port had caught fire a second time, this time completely destroying the unit and everything inside.

The following night, at approximately 12:30 a.m. Aug. 9, Souza’s boyfriend Richard Mutschler awoke to find his pickup truck parked in the side yard of the residence on fire.

“I’ve lived here for 29 years and I’ve never had anything like this happen before.” Souza said Thursday afternoon after surveying through items she had lost in the second fire.

Richard Mutschler, who lives at 1308 Oakwood St. in Belding, talks with an insurance agent Thursday afternoon after three fires destroyed his pickup truck and a portable carport, which contained items and property belonging to him and his girlfriend, Deb Souza. — Daily News/Cory Smith

According to Belding Police Chief Dale Nelson, investigations have led to calling the multiple fires “suspicious.”

“We are currently awaiting lab work results to tell us more about what may have happened,” Nelson said. “It is a suspicious fire at this point. Arson has not been ruled out. Whenever you have a fire that doesn’t have a reason for occurring, it takes time to figure out exactly what happened.”

A state fire official with the Michigan State Police was still investigating the scene on Thursday, but Mutschler, who assembled the car port that was destroyed by the first two fires and whose pickup truck was destroyed in the third fire, said he is “convinced” the fires were an act of arson.

“I have been here three and a half years and I had no trouble till about two weeks ago when I was cited for violating the city’s blight ordinance,” Mutschler said. “I don’t know if we’ve troubled somebody or not, we just don’t know why this is happening.”

Mutschler said this is the third time he has received a warning about blight at the residence and has complied with the city every time. Nelson confirmed Mutschler had been warned about blight at the property, pointing to the mobile car port and a mattress that had been in the front yard, but said the notices were issued by officers patrolling the area and were not derived by complaints from area residents.

In response to the blight warning, Mutschler said he drove around town and began taking pictures of other homes in Belding with similar tent structures and mobile parking units in those yards to bring to city council to explain his case.

“I was upset, because I wanted to know why I had gotten a notice in the mail saying I had to take the tent down when I’m not the only one in town with one of these,” he said.

But before he took the time to meet with city officials and discuss his concerns, the first fire on his car port occurred.

“I was already preparing to transport items from the property to a storage unit,” he said. “The stuff would have been in there as soon as I could have taken care of it, but the next thing you know, the tent was set on fire — twice.”

Richard Mitschler and Deb Souza, at far left, survey the damage to their Belding carport along with a pair of fire investigators, at right, Thursday afternoon after three fires within a one-week span destroyed the carport, items inside and a pickup truck. — Daily News/Cory Smith

Mutschler said he and Souza are now worried that a possible fourth fire could lead to more disastrous results.

“I’m worried that someone might burn the house down,” he said. “I don’t get it. All I know is, I had no problem until I started taking those pictures. I’ve now visited all of my neighbors and told them, if you have a problem with our yard, just tell me.”

In response to the three fires, Nelson said police patrols throughout the neighborhood have increased and he is hoping a suspect develops soon as investigations continue.

“This is one of the quieter neighborhoods in the city,” Nelson said. “We’re just waiting on lab results to lead us in a different direction.”

Deb Souza looks at the damage to her carport Thursday afternoon that was destroyed by two fires within a one-week span at 1308 Oakwood St. in Belding. — Daily News/Cory Smith

All three fires occurred at night while Souza was working third shift and Mutschler was inside the residence sleeping inside the home.

Mutschler estimates there has been about $4,000 worth of damages from the fires, but said many items that were lost had sentimental value.

“She lost a lot of memories in this fire,” Mutschler said of Souza. “There was an elephant collection, a mug collection, lots of things she wanted to give to her children.”

Mutschler said he and Souza have been dating for about three and a half years and have lived together in that time.

Souza said her husband died about five years ago.

“My kids didn’t get the chance to go through some of the things that were left behind by their dad,” she said. “You can’t replace this stuff.”

Neighbor Jennifer Parker, who saw the first fire and called 911 when she awoke and saw flames reflected in her television screen, said she still can’t believe something like this could happen in her neighborhood.

“They are wonderful neighbors,” she said. “He would give the shirt off of his back. I just hope they catch whoever did this.”

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