Arrest made in string of Lake County arson fires, deputies say

Suspect accused of watching mobile home burn

LAKE COUNTY, Fla. – Lake County deputies said they have arrested the person responsible for a string of arson fires in the area in February.

James Anthony Bennett, 48, of Altoona, was arrested Thursday at his home. He's facing four counts of arson and two counts of armed burglary.

Nine fires were reported during a nine-day period beginning Feb. 17. The flames affected a mobile home, a dumpster, a home with a teenager inside, a truck, a barn, an off-duty deputy's vehicle and more, all in the Umatilla area.

Bennett is facing charges in connection with the fires at Old Crow BBQ, Sunoco, a mobile home and the deputy's vehicle, Lake County Sheriff's Office public information officer Lt. John Herrell said. The five remaining fires are still under investigation. It's possible that the suspect could face additional charges, deputies said.

No injuries were reported in any of the incidents.

Authorities in February created an arson task force to investigate the fires and identify the culprit.

Deputies said they received information early on in the investigation indicating that Bennett was possibly connected to the fires, then earlier this week, they received additional information that allowed them to obtain an arrest warrant.

"It wasn't until earlier this week that a witness came forward and really solidified our suspicions. It gave us what we needed. He provided us information that Bennett had been given to him that only the suspect would know. It was information and details that had not been previously released in media reports an interviews so that kind of was the missing link and it all came together so we're just very happy that we're able to get this guy in jail where he belongs and that the residents in Lake County can breathe easy," Herrell said.

On Friday, officials said Bennett refused to appear for his inital appearace before a judge.

According to an arrest affidavit, Bennett was arrested after someone came forward claiming Bennett confessed to the string of arsons.

"James Anthony Bennett discussed the events and claimed responsibility for their occurence to a witness," the affidavit stated.

In surveillance video of the fire at the Sunoco, deputies said Bennett was wearing the same clothing in pictures found on social media.

According to deputies, Bennett also returned to the scene of one of the fires he is accused of starting.

"James Anthony Bennett was present on scene watching the mobile home fire and the activity surrounding it as witnessed by this detective," the affidavit stated.

A motive remains unknown.

Bennett is being held at the Lake County Jail on $300,000 bond.

Check back for more information on this developing story.

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