San Diego police are actively searching for an arsonist who set fire to at least 22 cars during the past 10 days.
The arsonist appears to be preying on condominiums in Mira Mesa, and the targets almost all have this in common: They’re parked under covered areas in apartment/condo complex parking lots.
“Within, like three to five minutes, the entire carport was on fire," one resident said. "It was terrifying. It looked like a war zone."
Last week, that same resident woke up around 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 22 to a line of cars on fire, his among them. The flames were so large that he evacuated his kids from their home, just a few feet away.
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In all, 17 cars burned that night and a condo unit suffered serious damage in what police believe was just one of at least four separate fires set by the same person.
“I hope you get some help, and I hope you stop this before somebody dies,” the resident said.
Police say the suspect set a car on fire near Zapata Ave and Teresa Drive just before 1:20 a.m. on Dec. 22. Less than 10 minutes later, the suspect set off the fire that burned 17 cars at the Caminito La Bar complex. One week later, the arsonist struck again, this time just before 3 a.m. at another complex on Summerdale Road. And again, one hour later that same night at a complex carport on Capricorn Way.
“I came out here in these pants, no shirt, no shoes," said John Haworth, whose car was the one set on fire on Capricorn Way. "It was raining and it was already engulfed in flames.”
Two days later, the site still smells like burning rubber. The fire ignited a nearby tree, a reminder of how dangerous it could have been if firefighters had not put out the flames as quickly as they did.
“Disbelief," Haworth said. "My car is on fire. I honestly laughed, after this kind of year. You know, 2021, ending it with a literal bang, you can say.”
Haworth had paid off his sedan, which he bought brand new in 2014. Now he thinks he'll only get $3,000-$4,000 back in insurance. In the meantime, he'll have to get creative to figure out a way to get to his second job at a pizza shop and get to custody visits for his son.
“The fact that you’re targeting apartment complexes — you’re targeting people who really are the most economically strapped for money," the resident said. "So you’re burning property that probably isn’t going to be replaced — kind of adding insult to injury there.”
Despite the financial stress and scary proximity of the fires to homes, both victims have a message of empathy for the arsonist.
“I don’t know whatever you’re going through," the resident said, "I know society isn’t great, but there’s help out there.”
“I hope you are happy," Haworth said. "If you need anything, reach out.”
Several of the victims believe the arsonist struck again Thursday night – this time at the Jade Coast apartment complex. It lines up with the rest of the targets: another carport in a condo complex in Mira Mesa, just a few miles away. NBC 7 reached out to police to confirm if they’re linking it to this arson spree, but due to the city holiday they told us no one was available to talk on camera.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to exclude the name of one of the residents for safety reasons.