Date: Tuesday, May 31
Time: 11:16 p.m.
Place: 6300 block of Oram, at Bethany Christian Church

On Tuesday, May 31, around 11:16 p.m., neighborhood resident Ralph Black noticed a suspicious person across the street at Bethany Christian Church. He call 911 immediately.

Good thing he did, too.

When the police arrived there was a small blaze going inside part of the church and James Keith Petty was found hiding in the bushes behind the church. Petty was exactly the man the police expected to find.

“One of our key points is encouraging people to report suspicious people,” says Officer Keith Allen of the Central Patrol Division, explaining that this particular incident illustrates the importance of doing just that to catch criminals.

According to officials, Petty, 47, is no stranger to arson. He has been suspected of setting fires in the Lakewood area since 1996. In fact, says Deputy Chief Kevin Sipes of the DPD’s Fire and Arson Investigation, police officers were out looking for him earlier in the evening on May 31 after a fire was reported in a trash dumpster at Prospect and Abrams.

“We were able to develop enough information on the church incident to arrest him. He was seen several times, and someone was actually able to identify him. We also had physical evidence to tie him to the crime,” Sipes says.

Petty was arrested on outstanding warrants and is now bein charged with first-degree felony arson. If found guilty, he faces between five years to life in prison.

Although Petty has a history of arson, police were never able to sustain charges before now. Most of the fires he was previously connected to were trash fires, which carry only a misdemeanor charge. Because the last fire was in a place of worship, that charge can be bumped up to felony one.

In 1996, Petty went to prison on arson-related charges and in 2000 was charged with the public burning of trash in alleys. “He admitted to some of them,” Sipes says.

He was also arrested in March after someone reported seeing a person of the same description as Petty after five fires broke out in the space of an hour in the same area. He was held for more than 70 days on outstanding warrants.

“He has been handled by our department more than once in the past,” Sipes says.

Then, on Saturday, May 28, a trash bin fire and a fire at a home being remodeled were reported within five minutes of each other. On May 29, a shack on La Vista was set on fire. then there were the May 31 fires.

“I suspected that he might have been released,” Sipes says (he was, on May 23), and began sending out people to look for him. “Four days out and we started seeing fires in the same area we know he hangs out.”

Sipes says he’s hopeful that the district attorney will get a conviction.

“We’d like to keep him off the streets for more than two months this time.”

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