Christopher M. Syracuse and some acquaintances were in his Tonawanda apartment Tuesday afternoon when a friend sent him a cell phone photo of a suspected arsonist believed responsible for several fires that hit in the Tonawandas earlier that day.
Syracuse looked at the photo on his cell phone and offered a perceptive observation.
“That looks like me. I hope this doesn’t get me in trouble,” Syracuse said, according to a person with him at the time.
Syracuse then showed the picture to others in the apartment.
“When I seen it, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that really does look like him,’ ” said the woman, who asked not to be identified for this story.
A short time later, police knocked on the door of Syracuse’s two-story apartment on Hinds Street. Investigators questioned him there, and then took him to North Tonawanda Police headquarters for more questioning. At some point during the interrogation, the 26-year-old confessed to setting as many as eight fires earlier that day in an arson spree that frightened thousands of residents.
Syracuse told police why he did it, but they did not disclose his motive following his arraignment in North Tonawanda City Court on Wednesday morning. But police did say that Syracuse acted alone and appeared to choose his targets at random.
The tally: five vehicles, eight houses, a Dumpster and three garbage totes over a span of two-and-a-half hours starting Monday night, police said. Syracuse started behind a store on Meadow Drive just before 11:30 p.m. and finished just after 2 a.m. Tuesday with a vehicle fire that spread to two homes less than half a mile from his apartment, police said. Many of the fires started in the vehicles and then spread to adjoining homes.
Career and volunteer fire departments from across the area assisted in putting out the blazes, while several police agencies, including the Niagara County Sheriff’s Department, the State Police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives participated in the investigation.
Syracuse, who has never been arrested in North Tonawanda, had no known criminal record, police there said.
During his court appearance Wednesday morning when he was charged with 11 felonies and four misdemeanors, Syracuse was barefoot wearing a white, one-piece jumpsuit. He tried to make a statement in court but was stopped by City Judge William R. Lewis, who told him it wouldn’t be in his interest to say anything without an attorney present. The judge entered a not guilty plea for Syracuse, who was held without bail.
Three of Syracuse’s family members attended his court appearance, but declined to comment.
Syracuse lives in the Hinds Street apartment with his ex-girlfriend, their two daughters, ages 3 and 4, and her 5-year-old son from another father. Faded chalk markings of yellow, pink, purple and blue, along with a plastic container of chalk pieces, were visible Wednesday morning on the concrete outside the front door of the apartment, which is part of an eight-unit building in a larger complex.
Syracuse often spoke of suicide and appeared to have feelings of loneliness, neighbors said. He did not have a girlfriend and doesn’t have many of his own friends, they said.
He talked about hurting himself so much that his ex-girlfriend’s friend said she stopped taking it seriously.
But Syracuse always hugged and kissed his children before he left for work at a nearby 7-Eleven, neighbors said, and from all appearances seemed to be a loving father.
The birthdates and names of all three of the children are tattooed on his right arm, according to his arrest report.
One neighbor said he wasn’t a bothersome neighbor, while another said he wasn’t very sociable.
“I talked to him hours before (the fires) ever happened,” said another neighbor, who also did not want to be identified. “He was fine. He seemed perfectly fine.”
His ex-girlfriend’s friend said she saw him just before he left the apartment on Monday night. Syracuse told her he was going to see a female friend. The next morning, Syracuse was wearing the same shirt as the night before and seemed grouchy, she said. Syracuse also told those around him he was home at the time of the fires, but the ex-girlfriend’s friend said she knows he went out in his mother’s vehicle.
A 10-second surveillance video from a Zimmerman Street building company that was released to news media Tuesday garnered 10 tips, including two that directed police to Syracuse.
A camera affixed to a gutter on the backside of Lent Builders Inc. showed an arsonist setting two plastic garbage totes on fire. The totes sat a few feet below the camera.
“He started the fire and he looked up and saw the camera and ducked down and ran away,” said Linda Lent, who owns the business with her husband, Richard.
City of Tonawanda police impounded the vehicle that Syracuse was believed to be driving during the arson spree. Meanwhile, evidence found in the burned vehicles and the burned building at 208 Goundry is being analyzed, police said.
Some of the arson victims said Syracuse’s quick arrest gave them a sense of relief. None said they knew Syracuse.
“It’s comforting to know that someone’s in custody and we don’t have to go through that nightmare again,” said Timothy McGee, 62, of 92 Ransom, where a fire started at about 1:04 a.m. Tuesday.
S.A. Chiodo, of 49 Ganson, said she couldn’t help but feel upset with the accused arsonist. Her Chevrolet Malibu was set on fire around 1 a.m. Tuesday.
“I’d love to go over and say, ‘Why did you burn my car? I earned my car,’ ” Chiodo said.
“I’m at a point in my life where he’s not going to ruin my life,” she added. “I’m glad he’s caught, and I’m moving on.”
By Wednesday morning, burned, melted vehicles had been removed from driveways on Ransom, Zimmerman and Ganson streets.
On Goundry Street, drivers proceeded slowly and turned their heads to catch a glimpse of the destroyed, three-story apartment building.
“I’m grateful,” said Donna Schultz, 62, of 258 Zimmerman. “I’m thankful that they were able to get him and get him so fast.”
Syracuse has been charged with 11 felonies and four misdemeanors in North Tonawanda, where he is scheduled to have another court appearance this afternoon, this time with a public defender. The felony charges consist of eight arson counts and three criminal mischief counts. The misdemeanors are also arson and criminal mischief charges. Police would not give details about how the manner in which the blazes were set.
He is likely to be arraigned sometime next week on the charges from the Enterprise Avenue arson in the City of Tonawanda, Tonawanda Police Capt. Fredric F. Foels said.
Federal charges are under consideration.