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Residents In Cornelius Neighborhood On Edge, Seeking Answers

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Tabitha McAuley woke Saturday morning to the beeping sound of a text message. A friend two streets over, on Meadow Crossing Lane, texted "another fire." "I knew exactly what that meant," she said. Firefighters arrived to find the interior of the structure on fire. Investigators say an arsonist set fire to a vacant house on Meadow Crossing Lane shortly before 5 a.m. that day - the fourth suspicious fire in the neighborhood since December. It came despite an increased police presence and an ongoing investigation into the blazes. Police believe the fires are related and the work of an arsonist, but they have yet to solve the case. The fires have disrupted life in the neighborhood, and left Glenridge residents scared, angry and wanting answers. Some have moved or changed their routines, while others have added lights and alarm systems or joined the neighborhood watch. "Some people are scared, some mad, and all concerned," Chief Bence Hoyle told CorneliusNews.net in an email. "Every one of those emotions are justified." LIFE ISN'T THE SAME Saturday's fire was the second in 4 1/2 months at 10250 Meadow Crossing Lane. It destroyed much of what was left of the house, which had burned in April after spreading from a fire that destroyed the house next door. Since 2002, Kelly Dawes has owned a house on Meadow Crossing Lane just two houses away from Saturday's fire. For the past few months - ever since the April 8 fire that destroyed the two homes and damaged two more - she has had trouble sleeping. She keeps an overnight bag packed at all times with a change of clothes for her and her 14-year-old son, her medication and a leash for the dog, she said. She also keeps her flood lights on all night. Two homes on Meadow Crossing Lane burn around 2:30 a.m. Friday, April 8. (David Boraks/CorneliusNews.net) Residents living directly next door to the house that burned Saturday have a 2-week-old baby, and neighbors say the couple is looking to move out. Their house sustained damage to the vinyl siding during the first fire April 8, and again sustained similar damage Saturday. "After the first one you're scared," Ms. Dawes said, "but now, you're more mad." FEAR TURNS TO ANGER Ms. McAuley agreed: "I definitely think people are more angry than scared at this point. After the first few (fires), you're scared because you wonder, 'Am I going to be next?' But now, everybody's just very angry." Just five days after the April 8 fire, Ms. McAuley moved her family from the house they were leasing on Meadow Crossing Lane to a house two streets over in Heritage Green. "The air (quality) on the street was atrocious," she said, "not to mention it was a three-ring circus." The cause of the April 8 fire was tied to chemicals in a recycling bin along the side of one of the houses. Fire investigators haven't officially said it was arson, but police consider it part of the investigation of the other arson fires - a December incident in which someone lit porch furniture on fire, a May 31 incident in which someone set a vacant home on fire, and Saturday's incident, in which someone set fire to the remaining structure of one of the homes that burned April 8. All the incidents were on the same street. On Saturday, an investigator from the Mecklenburg County Fire Marshal's Office told CorneliusNews.net the latest fire had the same modus operandi as the others. As with the other fires, Saturday's started on the left side of the home in the early morning hours. At a community meeting June 9, Chief Hoyle told neighborhood residents police suspected an arsonist was at work. "We certainly have that suspicion (that it's the same person)," he said, because the MO is so similar and the houses are on the same street. "But we have to work really hard not to get stuck in that frame of mind." Investigators were able to definitively determine the May 31 fire was intentionally set, as they found burned clothing and accelerant at the scene. That fire prompted police and fire officials to hold the neighborhood meeting. "When we all started to get wind of the word 'arson' being tossed around, that's when the hairs on the backs of our necks stood up," Ms. McAuley said Tuesday. IMPROVING SAFETY At the June meeting, Mecklenburg County fire marshals, Cornelius detectives and police officers spoke with about 120 residents from the Glenridge, Heritage Green and Oakhurst neighborhoods at Cornelius Town Hall. Detectives urged residents to remain aware of their surroundings and note anything suspicious. Police also told residents to consider safety measures, such as motion-sensitive lights, that could deter the arsonist, who strikes during the early morning hours. Chief Hoyle said at the meeting that police had increased patrols in the neighborhood, both in cars and on foot. He tried to assure residents that even though they may not see signs of it, there is a lot of surveillance going on. He asked residents for their understanding, saying some details must remain secret so the surveillance is effective, he said at the meeting. "We've noticed an increase in patroling hours, but there's been no decrease in the activity," Ms. McAuley said. "It's obviously not enough." Police this week reiterated their need to keep some information private, to protect the investigation. "I'm not going to comment on the resources we are putting in there, but I understand some don't feel like it is enough," Chief Hoyle said in the email. "It's a top priority to us and we will give it all we have for as long as we can." In addition to the increased police efforts, the residents also are increasingly attentive. Police say they're getting more calls from Glenridge residents reporting what they believe to be suspicious activity. "The neighborhood has been great," Chief Hoyle said. "We continue to receive information on various issues and respond to those." REGULAR CHECKS But police do not just wait for calls to head to the neighborhood. Officers conduct regular security checks in Glenridge and other neighborhoods, and do "cold contact" calls - all of which are logged. "We have done over 900 of these types of checks in Glenridge and Oakhurst," Chief Hoyle said, and though the checks have not caught the arson they have been effective at catching people for other incidents. Because of those checks, for example, police have arrested six people in the past few weeks in connection with car break-ins, Chief Hoyle said. Cornelius Commissioner Jim Bensman and Mayor Pro Tem Lynette Rinker met with about seven Glenridge residents over the weekend at the home of Jason Simms to learn their concerns and gather information for the Town Board. Residents at the informal meeting told the commissioners they want better street lighting and speeding controls, among other things, Mr. Bensman said. He also spoke with a group of neighbors that gathered outside to talk Sunday night. On Monday, Ms. Rinker, Mr. Bensman and Town Manager Anthony Roberts met with Chief Hoyle to share what they learned from the residents. "It's a very nice neighborhood," Mr. Bensman said. "The people are worried and justifiably so," he said. On the town's end, Mr. Roberts and the town board will be looking into some of the infrastructure needs for the neighborhood, Mr. Bensman said. "We're really glad to see them taking us seriously," Ms. McAuley said. And the residents are banding together to help with patroling their neighborhood. They've made a conscious effort to spend more time outside in groups, Ms. McAuley said, and have made a neighborhood Facebook page to keep people connected. "We want to make our presence known," she said. FIRE DRILL SATURDAY Meanwhile, residents preparing for the possibility of another incident. They're planning a community "fire drill" between 2 and 6 a.m. this Saturday, Ms. McAuley said, during which anyone who wishes to participate will practice responding to a fire. "It's an effort to develop a buddy system," Ms. McAuley said, where neighbors are responsible for getting each other up and out by knocking on doors or calling each other. And while residents do their part, police continue to devote resources to surveillance, patrols and the investigation. "It is the most resourced case we have going, and has been for months," Chief Hoyle said.