Suspicious fires

Click here to see an interactive graphic of suspicious fires in the downtown area over the past decade. For more coverage of the downtown fires, go to postandcourier.com/arson.

A tip in October about Kenneth Boone’s possible involvement in arsons in Hollywood led a task force to place him under surveillance in connection with a string of intentionally lit fires on the peninsula, Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said.

Investigators kept close tabs on the 55-year-old construction worker until Saturday night, when they learned he was on his way to set another fire in the rural Charleston County town, Mullen said at a news conference in City Hall.

After watching him pick up a man and take steps to avoid being followed, police pulled over his vehicle and found a container full of gasoline inside, Mullen said.

Charleston County deputies have charged him in connection with arsons in Hollywood in August and September of this year, Mullen said. Charleston police also have evidence tying him to another arson at 48 Montagu St. in Charleston in December 2010, Mullen said.

Speaking to the public, Mullen said, they can “breathe easier knowing that at least one person who set fires is in jail.”

Boone, who lives on the edge of the fire zone on the peninsula, now faces four arson charges. He is being held at the Charleston County jail, with bail set at $225,000, Mullen said.

Mullen cautioned that the investigation is still in its infancy and much more work needs to be done. He also urged people with information on the fires to come forward and help police.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley praised the “extremely creative and extremely resourceful” work of the Peninsula Fire Arson Task Force and thanked its members personally by name. Riley said arson is a very dangerous crime that is very difficult to solve because it often occurs under darkness while people are sleeping.

“I don’t believe there is a law enforcement agency anywhere … that exceeded the determination, the hard work, the diligence and the quality of our arson task force here in Charleston,” Riley said.

Chief Fire Marshal Mike Julazadeh spoke of the task force’s effectiveness, including canvassing neighborhoods and getting the word out on cleaning up porches was an effective tool to thwart the arsonists’ efforts.

“The goal of this group was to stop this issue,” he said. “We wanted to interrupt what was going on downtown.”

He added, “Even though there has been an arrest, we can’t stress enough that we have on-going investigations. We still need the community to be vigilant. We still need the community to remain vigilant.”

The fires have bedeviled investigators and detectives for nearly a decade.

In all, more than 80 suspicious fires have broken out in a tightly packed area of the peninsula bisected by the Septima P. Clark Parkway, better known as the Crosstown.

They began at least in the early 2000s and were set every year after that, according to a Post and Courier analysis. It’s unclear whether they were the work of one person, though given the length of time, it’s plausible that several fire-setters were at work.

The motives for the fires also remain a mystery, but they also have similarities. Nearly all of the fires were set in homes that had been converted into apartments. Many of the apartments were rented by college-age students. Most were older homes, on average 105 years old, though some had been standing since 1835.

They tended to come in waves, often starting in the spring and ending when the cold weather set in. Many were set on porches. In one in three fires, a couch or chair was set on fire. Most were started in the early hours of the morning. More than half erupted between 2 a.m. and 5:30 a.m., and nearly eight in 10 were set after midnight.

They were concentrated in a surprisingly compact area in downtown Charleston — the neighborhoods immediately north and south of the Crosstown. Plotted on a map, all but two fires were within 5,000 feet of each other, a relatively short walk.

Boone lives on the edge of the area affected by the arson. He has a lengthy criminal record, with convictions for marijuana possession, grand larceny, criminal domestic violence and receiving stolen goods, according to State Law Enforcement Division records.

Boone’s father was once described in a 2009 Post and Courier feature as a “patriarch” of old Charleston and known for his careful construction work on the Calhoun Mansion, 2 South Battery and other famous Charleston homes. His mother, Orelee, is a double-amputee and worked for the Clerk of Court for more than 20 years.

Boone’s address is listed as 5 Glenwood Ave., which overlooks Allan Park in the Hampton Park Terrace neighborhood. This morning, two older green Ford pickups with tool boxes were parked in the driveway. Orelee came to the door in her wheelchair and said her son, who goes by the name of Kenny, did various construction jobs around the city, including a house that had burned.

Records with the Secretary of State’s office list Boone as the registered agent for a wholesale tobacco distribution company.

In December, Mayor Joe Riley announced the city was doubling its reward — from $25,000 to $50,000 — for anyone whose tip helps find and convict those responsible.

The city announced a $25,000 reward in late July, after a suspicious early morning fire occurred at a two-story home on Cannon Street.

Check back with the Post and Courier for updates.