Residents dubious of value of new arson sketch

The two police sketches released in relation to Charleston arsons.

Inside D'Allesandro's Pizza, a restaurant in the heart of downtown Charleston's arson zone, employees studied the police department's newest sketch Tuesday afternoon, triggering a rapid-fire exchange:

"Looks like a Neanderthal," said a cook named Andreas, who declined to give his last name.

"It looks like you," quipped Will Smyer, a server. "Encino Man."

"Yeah, like Encino man," Andreas answered. "You can't really see the head or the hair."

"It's not very helpful," Smyer said.

Late Monday, police issued a black-and-white sketch of a man they said might have information that could help their investigation into dozens of fires that have been set around the Septima P. Clark Parkway.

The sketch depicted the man wearing a hood and gave the department's phone number (577-7434) and Arson Hot Line (1-800-922-7766), but offered no other details about what prompted the sketch or which fires might be connected to the person -- even the color of the hoodie.

In response to questions from reporters, police said Monday night that the man is believed to be black and between 35 and 45 years old.

More details dribbled out Tuesday afternoon -- the subject is between 6-foot, and 6-foot-2 inches tall, with a light complexion and a scruffy beard. He wears light brown "Dickie" work pants and a hoodie with a type of design on the back.

Mark Ruppel, public information officer for the Charleston Fire Department, said he had no other new information to release about the arsons and the city's investigation. He said the task force continues to meet weekly, and reiterated that the subject in the sketch "is not a suspect."

It was the task force's second sketch, and it was markedly different than its first one, which depicted a young white man in his early 20s. The man was at the scene of a fire in December on Vanderhorst Street. The task force is still looking for that person as well.

Investigators hope the sketches prod memories and new tips at a period that has historically seen few suspicious fires.

Since 2002, at least 85 possible arsons have broken out in neighborhoods north and south of the Septima P. Clark Parkway, better known as the Crosstown, according to a Post and Courier tally. None of the fires, however, have been set between mid-January and the end of March.

The fires have frustrated investigators and residents alike, and the latest sketch wasn't making things much clearer, said residents and workers in neighborhoods where the fires were set.

"It looks like E.T. with chops," said Jordan Igoe, a resident walking on Bogard Street with Mackie Boles.

"It's kind of a weird picture," Boles said.

Both were holding copies that police handed them earlier in the day.

"When I asked what it was, (the officer) said, 'Just some idiot we're looking for,' " Boles said. "I'd be a lot more motivated if it was the arson suspect."

Across the street, police had stuffed a copy of the sketch between a door grate.

Back inside D'Allesandro's, employees wondered whether the people depicted in the sketches are in fact suspects, despite the task force's insistence that they are not.

"Without any information, it seems like they're suspects, and that's why they're looking for them," said Smyer, one of the servers.

"Yeah," added Andreas, the cook. "Usually it's the criminal who has the most information about the crime."