MIAMI BEACH (CBS4) – Miami Beach Police have made an arrest related to the recent wave of fires that have struck several buildings on Miami Beach, and they say the man has an extensive criminal record.
Miami Beach Police arrested Joel Paul Williams, 33, and charged him with two counts of arson, carrying a concealed weapon, and burglary.
Police Chief Carlos Noriega said “We have taken a very dangerous individual off the street. The citizens have reason to feel safer today.”
Police have connected Williams to at least two of twelve fires on Miami Beach since Feb. 10th, however, they believe he’s connected to more, if not all of them.
Noriega said investigators believe Williams may have been the arsonist responsible for all the fires.
“There are commonalities between the fires…and that’s why he’s a person of interest,” he said.
Police say he was on the scene of the most recent fire on Wednesday night at 1817 James Avenue where an historic building burned. Police had apparently seen Williams in prior videotape on the scene of other fires. Police did not say where the video came from.
Police say Williams graduated from torching vacant buildings when he set a hallway fire in an occupied apartment building early Wednesday morning. The small fire was quickly extinguished, but caused residents to be evacuated.
“I smelled smoke and I came downstairs because the firefighters said ‘get out of your house,’” resident Jennifer Maumier said.
After spotting him on the scene of the James Avenue fire, police followed him and eventually stopped him for questioning. That’s when a specially trained dog alerted to an accelerant on his pants and shoes.
Williams has been charged with the fire on James Avenue and a smaller blaze in the hallway of a small occupied apartment building. More charges could be filed against Williams in connection to the other fires.
Williams is no stranger to being on the wrong side of the law. CBS4′s Gio Benitez uncovered that Williams has a lengthy arrest record in the state of Washington.
Noriega said Williams is a “hardened criminal” with an extensive record, but declined to detail his arrest history.
Williams was in the state for just five years and was arrested and booked 32 times. He has eleven convictions for theft, unlawful use of a weapon, criminal trespass in the first degree, property destruction, and unlawful possession of a dangerous weapon.
On Feb. 9th, a fire charred the vacant Tyler Apartments located at 420 21st Street.
Monday, the vacant Collins Plaza Hotel at 318 20th Street went up in flames in the city’s Collins Park neighborhood. That was followed by a blaze on Tuesday night at the former Copley Terrace Apartments located at 435 20th Street.
City manager Jorge Gonzalez cautioned, though, that citizens should keep their guard up.
“We urge all of our community, all of our residents and visitors to remain vigilant,” Gonzalez said.
The arrest of a suspect brought relief to a beach community terrorized by eight days of confligration.
“We were all worried, waking up in the middle of the night with the fire trucks running by. We couldn’t sleep,” said Kedar Sukdanker who lives across James Avenue from the building that burned Wednesday night. “We were worried about what was going on in the neighborhood.”