NORFOLK, Va. - A man has been arrested and charged with arson after a number of suspicious fires in the West Ghent area of Norfolk.
On Monday, the Norfolk Fire Marshal's Office and detectives with the Norfolk Police Department arrested 42-year-old Ryan Lee Elza of Norfolk. Elza was charged with one count of arson to an occupied dwelling.
In June, landlord James Jones told us the trouble started last year. He said in February 2020, a vehicle on Redgate Avenue was set on fire. Two months later, Jones said, "somebody came and lit the plastic trash can on fire in our alleyway, pushed the cans up against our gas feeders and after the cans got into a blaze, the gas meters exploded." He said there were four people in the building at the time.
While they were trying to rebound from the first fire, the home went up in flames again.
On June 2 this year, temporary cameras set up in Jones' backyard caught the moment when another fire started. This time, the target was a car parked out front of the home.
Elza is being held in the Norfolk City Jail without bond.
Elza spoke to News 3 from behind bars Tuesday. He told us the situation is a misunderstanding and that he didn't set fire to anything in the area.
He said up until Monday, he was an 8th grade teacher at Lake Taylor School in Norfolk. We tried to confirm this with the district, but we have not gotten a response from them yet.
Neighbors who spoke with us Tuesday said they have not been sleeping well and say this incident has been the talk of the town. They said they feel relieved that an arrest has been made.
Elza said his wife’s car was set on fire and that he has been wrongly accused. He did admit that he has been in a dispute with the person whose home caught on fire.
He said police told him that they have video of him with lighter fluid in his hand.
"The things that that they said that I had in the video are things that that are actually very common and a lot of people have in the summertime for cooking a barbecue or barbecue grill, so that doesn’t really prove anything," Elza told us. "That doesn’t show definitively that somebody did a crime or crime was committed. They said they had other things, but when I asked to see them, they declined to show me."
This is not the first time that he has had to answer questions about fires in his neighborhood; there was another incident that happened about 10 years ago, but he wasn't charged. He said he was arrested for a misdemeanor after a run-in with first responders.
"I guess you could say it was a misunderstanding. There was a fire in a detached garage at home with my parents … I ran around the corner, and there were a bunch of firefighters there and they thought I was going to do something like run into the fire - I don’t know what they thought I was going to do," Elza explained. "They try to grab onto me and we got into a pushing-shoving match, kind of yelling at them, 'Stay away from me! Get off me!' and then I went back at my house and I got arrested for that."
The investigation remains ongoing, and officials say more charges could be forthcoming. Investigators are also examining arson cases from years ago.
Elza is due back in court on September 30.