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Police say North Tonawanda arson targets were chosen at ‘random’

The arsonist who set fires in North Tonawanda apparently chose his targets at random, North Tonawanda Police Chief William R. Hall said today.

Christopher Syracuse, 26, of North Tonawanda was arraigned in North Tonawanda City Court this morning on 11 felonies and four misdemeanors in connection with a rash of seven fires over two hours from late Monday to 2 a.m. Tuesday.

Syracuse “was acting on his own. There was no one else involved in this,” Hall said after the arraignment.

Hall also said the vehicles and houses targeted “appears to be random.”

The chain of events was similar in all fires. In all cases, the arsonist set a vehicle on fire, and the flames spread to nearby homes.

Syracuse was taken into custody at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at his apartment at 249 Hinds St. , the City of Tonawanda, and he did not resist arrest, Hall said.

The break in the investigation came after police released a 10-second video of a suspect in the arsons Tuesday afternoon. Soon after, about 10 people called and two identified the person as Syracuse.

Hall said as far as he knows, Syracuse has no criminal record.

Syracuse worked as a cashier at 7-Eleven in Tonawanda, located in a plaza at 533 Niagara St. The assistant manager there said 7-Eleven’s corporate office today told her staff not to talk to reporters or answer any questions regarding Syracuse. She would not confirm if Syracuse worked there up until his arrest.

Hall said a vehicle belonging to Syracuse was seized and will be tested for evidence tying him to the arsons.

Syracuse was “more or less cooperative” with authorities but he did not reveal what might have motivated his actions, Hall aid.

Hall called the investigation a “total team effort,” including police and fire departments plus the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The arrest capped a hectic night and day that put the residents of two cities on edge.

The first fire call came at 11:28 p.m. Monday – a Dumpster fire behind a Tops store.

Almost an hour later, a pickup truck parked between two homes on Zimmerman Street went up in flames, damaging both homes.

A garbage tote behind a nearby strip plaza was also targeted.

Thirty-seven minutes after that, another truck caught fire about half a mile away – this one between two Ransom Street homes, both of which were also damaged.

By then, North Tonawanda firefighters knew something was wrong. So began a night that frightened residents, exhausted firefighters and sent police looking for answers to those fires along with fires on Ganson Street, Goundry Street and then a fire at Enterprise Avenue in the City of Tonawanda. By morning, investigators fanned out across the Tonawandas and retrieved a 10-second surveillance clip from a building company in a plaza near two of the fires. That video alerted authorities to a young male suspect.

The seven blazes over two hours stretched three miles from North Tonawanda’s Meadow Drive to the City of Tonawanda.

No one suffered any serious injuries, but the fires destroyed one multi-family house and five vehicles and damaged the exteriors of seven other homes.

Investigators went to gas stations and other businesses Tuesday to watch their surveillance footage. Based on the surveillance footage from the building company near the Zimmerman Street fires, police described the suspect as a white male of medium build, with short dark hair, and wearing glasses and a V-neck shirt.

Police do not know if the arsonist traveled by foot or vehicle during the string of fires.

North Tonawanda beefed up police patrols Tuesday night. They asked residents to call 911 to report any suspicious person near their homes.

Residents said they heard loud booms when the vehicles exploded. But police don’t believe that necessarily means the arsonist threw bombs.

Syracuse is being held without bail and is set to appear in court 1:30 p.m. Thursday to apply for a public defender. He asked North Tonawanda City Court Judge William R. Lewis for permission to speak in court and was advised not to do so until an attorney is present.

Between 100 and 150 firefighters – both career firefighters and volunteers – from surrounding departments responded to the fires Monday night and early Tuesday morning or stood by at stations to assist North Tonawanda and the City of Tonawanda.

Syracuse was charged with:

• Three counts of second degree arson

• four counts of third degree arson

• One count of fourth degree arson

• Three counts of third degree criminal mischief

• Two counts of fifth degree arson

• Two counts of fourth degree criminal mischief

News Staff Reporters Shawn Campbell and Matt Gryta contributed to this story.