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.

Two men were in a car in the early morning hours Friday, heading to Hollywood to burn a house. Pour gas through the window and light it with a napkin, one man reportedly said. “When I light it, it will make a hell of a whooping noise.”

That particular fire never happened. According to arrest affidavits, police and Charleston County sheriff’s deputies stopped the car and arrested the driver on arson charges. A plastic milk jug filled with gasoline was found behind the driver’s seat.

The arrest was the culmination of a complex undercover operation that began in October with a tip to the city’s arson hotline, which in turn fueled new life into the hunt for a serial arsonist that torched downtown homes over the past decade.

The focus of the investigation was Kenneth Boone, a 55-year-old construction worker who lives in the Hampton Terrace neighborhood with his aging parents.

Boone was charged Saturday with two counts of third-degree arson in connection with fires at a house in Hollywood, one count of third-degree arson involving a house at 48 Montagu St. in Charleston and one count of solicitation to commit arson, according to arrest affidavits.

But while Boone was headed to Hollywood that morning, investigators also had the city fires on their minds. One affidavit outlined how a confidential informant earlier said he believed Boone “was starting fires to residences in the City and County of Charleston, and then later profiting by performing the repair work.”

A tip, a break

In a press conference Monday afternoon, Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen, said residents “can breathe easier knowing” that an arrest was made.

But, he said, much work needs to be done. 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.

After a rash of fires in the summer of 2011, the city reconstituted its arson task force and offered what eventually grew to a $50,000 reward. Police and firefighters canvassed neighborhoods, installed surveillance cameras and put up red arson hotline signs in front of homes that burned.

Mullen said the task force got a break in late October when someone called the hotline. The tipster said a man who worked on houses in Charleston had asked an acquaintance to start a fire in Hollywood, a town on the metro area’s western outskirts.

Working with county and federal investigators, authorities began developing confidential sources, Mullen said. A surveillance team monitored their target’s movements night and day.

On Thanksgiving Day, Boone told a confidential informant that he would pick him up at about 3 a.m. at the corner of Ashley Avenue and Huger Street, an arrest affidavit said. That morning, the team saw Boone pick up a man and head toward Hollywood.

During the trip, “he made several comments,” the affidavit said. “Kenneth said he had a gallon of gas ... and went on to say the house had burned a couple of times.”

As Boone and the confidential informant neared Hollywood, police and deputies decided not to take any chances. They stopped Boone’s car at S.C. Highway 162 and U.S. Highway 17. “He was being monitored through a number of techniques, and he was not going to set a fire,” Mullen said.

Unanswered questions

The press conference announcing Boone’s arrest was held in City Council’s wood-paneled chamber, the same room where grim-faced city officials in July 2011 announced a $25,000 reward. At that time, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley vowed: “We’re going to catch you, and we won’t rest until we catch you.” City officials doubled the reward six months later after another fire.

Monday afternoon, city officials greeted each other with smiles as investigators with the city fire and police departments crowded onto the dais with Riley and other members of the task force. Riley praised their “extremely creative and extremely resourceful” work and thanked task force members personally by name.

Chief Fire Marshal Mike Julazadeh said firefighters worked hard to educate residents about preventing arsons and urged them to tell them any detail, no matter how insignificant. “The goal of this group was to stop this issue.”

Asked about the motive, Julazadeh said fires may have been set to “obtain repair work.”

But, Mullen added, “We want everyone to remain vigilant, because at this point, we’re not saying this particular individual set all those fires. We have a lot of investigation to do, a lot of theories. We don’t want people to lower their guard.”

The target

The focus of the task force has been on a surprisingly compact area immediately north and south of the Crosstown. Plotted on a map, all but two of the 80-plus fires were within 5,000 feet of each other. Nearly all were set in homes that had been converted into apartments. Most were older homes, including some that had been standing since 1835.

Boone’s address is listed as 5 Glenwood Ave., which overlooks Allan Park in the Hampton Park Terrace neighborhood and is on the edge of the area affected by the arsons. Boone’s father was once described in a Post and Courier feature in 2009 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.

Monday 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.

She said her son “lived here sometimes” and that police “questioned everyone on the job. All of them are being questioned. I know that they had one fellow who was homeless and working with him, and I know the police had wired one of them to see what they could find out.” She said police came to the house Sunday and “asked a lot of questions,” but “they haven’t found him guilty of anything.”

Boone’s life is marked by run-ins with the law and struggling business ventures. Records show that he sought permission to operate a coin telephone business in 1986. In 2010, he formed a company called G Talks Wholesale Tobacco Distributors. Those who knew Boone as an entrepreneur described him as someone with grand dreams who didn’t work to achieve them. One recent venture, the Shrimp King on Reb’s Corner, was a raw seafood store at Coming and Line streets that closed after less than a year in business.

Loud and friendly

Boone also is no stranger to the justice system, racking up more than 20 criminal offenses, from misdemeanor drug violations to grand larceny. He has been married three times, according to Charleston County records. During his second marriage, which lasted from December 1999 to February 2003, his wife accused him of beating her. Boone had to undergo court-ordered domestic abuse counseling, according to Family Court records.

His second wife alleged that Boone had abused her at a hotel, on the street and at their home. She stated that he left their home under police escort and never returned after obtaining a restraining order in December 2000, her divorce filing stated.

Before Saturday, Boone’s most recent arrest came in September of 2011 when he was accused of stealing 16 aluminum beams from a construction site at 1002 King St. He also has had numerous eviction proceedings against him when he lived in public housing on the peninsula.

Neighbors described him a gregarious man who, one said, came off as “loud and very friendly.” He remembers speaking with Boone mainly about “simple neighbor stuff” but never about the fires. He assumed Boone kept late hours sometimes, saying he drove a pickup truck “with a muffler issue,” meaning he could hear him when he drove by.

The arrest stirred up strong sense of shock and relief on Montagu Street, site of two recent arsons. David Fromholz awoke early one morning last November when his smoke alarms went off and discovered his wood stairs on fire outside his 50 Montagu St. apartment. Fromholz attended Riley’s press conference Monday to learn more.

Fromholz said he knew Boone as someone who arranged for painting and other work around their rental unit, including rebuilding the stairs after that 2011 fire. “It’s like someone putting a bullet in you and coming back to take the bullet back out,” he said. “The more I think about it, the more I get (hacked) off.”

Investigation continues

Boone is being held at the Cannon Detention Center with bail set at $225,000, said Mullen, adding that “the investigation is still in its infancy.”

He said it’s unclear at this time how or whether the reward money will be distributed. Investigators are working on new leads and interviewing other potential witnesses. He hinted that more accomplices may be involved. A sketch of a hooded man that police previously distributed is not Boone, Mullen said.

He warned: “Now is the time to determine whether you wish to cooperate and benefit from that cooperation — or remain silent and be exposed to the full range of charges that will be sought against anyone involved in these fires.”

Schuyler Kropf and Robert Behre contributed to this report.