Authorities are looking into several possible motives in a series of fires targeting construction sites in a Queens neighborhood, including controversy over new home construction in the area.
Seven fires have been set to six houses in Forest Hills since Oct. 20, the most recent one happening at around 12:30 a.m. Sunday at a house under construction on 69th Road. The building site had been set ablaze once before -- on Nov. 15, officials said.
One firefighter was slightly injured in Sunday's fire, which was extinguished by 2 a.m., according to the FDNY.
"It was traumatizing, of course," said Jonathan Kazakov, who lives next door with his family. "Devastating to the house, to the homes, to the people. My mom was definitely scared out of her mind."
The owner of the site torched on Sunday is a prominent Bukharian Jewish rabbi, and the other targeted construction sites are also all owned by Bukharian Jews, leading some neighbors to wonder whether they're hate crimes.
Investigators said Monday they don't believe it's the case, but one of the possibilities being considered is the explosion of new construction in the neighborhood. Some have complained that the newer, bigger structures are not in line with the character of the neighborhood.
Recent legislation attempted to appease residents with distaste for the large homes by requiring new homes to be built with grass in the front lawn and slanted roofs.
"The controversy was dying down," said Queens Borough President Melinda Katz. "But clearly this is someone who is going around the community, it's the same M.O., and the reasoning for it? There's never a reason to destroy someone's property."
The FDNY and the NYPD, who are working together on the investigation, are trying to identify a suspect. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said Monday police have have ruled out a man seen on a motorcycle nearby, but still don't know a motive.
"I wish I knew," Bratton said.
A community meeting is being held for concerned residents Tuesday morning. In the meantime, police are deploying officers around the neighborhood and they are imploring residents to keep their eyes open.
"It's crazy how many time this could happen, and this guy could just keep on doing it without getting caught, it's just crazy to me," said Kazakov.
Surveillance footage from around the time of a fire that broke out Nov. 25 at a home under construction on 67th shows a man walking behind a fence while wearing a hooded sweatshirt. The suspect was also seen near the scene of fires in the neighborhood on Nov. 8, 15 and 17. In each fire, authorities say the suspect went into the structure, ignited flammable materials and left.
"This is a maniac and a psycho, and a mental and a killer and a houseburner," said 74-year-old neighbor Sam Joseph, whose home was affected in the Nov. 17 fire. "Destroys everything, families."
The first fire broke out in late October, when a vacant home caught fire on 113th Street. On Nov. 8, there was another fire at a home under construction on 112th Street, and on Nov. 17, a large fire engulfed a home being built at 66th Avenue and 108th Street.
The arsonist left behind a note containing a riddle for police at a Nov. 25 fire, but it led police to the wrong person.