Former Norfolk teacher pleads guilty to starting Ghent fire

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Posted at 10:46 AM, Jul 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-29 11:33:05-04

NORFOLK, Va. - Forty-two-year-old Ryan Elza, former teacher in Norfolk, has plead guilty to arson and felony destruction of property.

Related: More charges brought against teacher accused of starting Ghent fire

Elza was charged with setting fire to a car in the West Ghent area of Norfolk in June of 2021. The fire spread to a home with a family inside.

Video surveillance shows Elza walking around with an accelerant on the night of June 11, 2011 during a jailhouse interview with News 3 in July, he said he was simply cooking hot dogs and denied burning the car and home of Patrick and Tiffany McGee.

He's been charged with two felony destruction of property (for both cars involved in the June 2021 fire), one maliciously burning personal property belonging to another individual (from a 2020 car fire incident), two arsons of occupied dwellings (from two separate 2011 incidents).

News 3 spoke to Prosecutors and according to them, Elza got in an argument with his neighbor, Patrick McGee about an abandoned car. Then on June 11, 2021, the day of the fire, McGee, his wife, and their two kids were asleep after watching television when they were awoken by a sailor pounding on their door saying that their house was on fire along with two of their cars. Eventually, it was found out that the fire started underneath Mrs. McGee's car.

According to prosecutors, Elza had placed charcoal underneath the car and charcoal starter lighter fluid and set it on fire. This is the first time the Prosecutor has ever seen arson started by charcoal.

Prosecutor Jeff James was brought in from Suffolk to try this case and says he plans to argue for a severe sentence.

"There were children in the house when he set it on fire. He just devastated this family," said James. "That's the reason I didn't agree to a sentence. I want to be able to argue what I want to argue...I will argue for a very substantial sentence."

Security footage provided by a neighbor showed Elza with a bag of charcoal and starter fluid the day of the fire.

Elza previously revealed to a court psychologist he is being treated for bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing a child burn to death in a car crash five years ago, court documents said.

Elza expressed to the psychologist that he had homicidal ideation toward his cellmates in jail, and requested to be segregated for safety.

He reports that he has a constant "whispering in his head," and admitted to struggling with alcoholism and cocaine abuse.

After a lengthy evaluation, the psychologist found Elza competent to stand trial. He remains in custody at the Norfolk City Jail.