Arsons rock E.C. neighborhood
Wednesday, September 5, 2007 12:43 AM CDT


EAST CHICAGO | Aracelia Fontanes has weathered some
rough summers at her north side church, but this year
is different.

"This is bad," said Fontanes, who is married to the
pastor at Templo Evangelistico Shalom. "My husband is
contemplating moving (the church) from here and
finding another place across town. That's how bad it
is."

The church sits next to one of the six houses that
have started on fire within in a four-block area this
summer. Authorities say all six fires bear the signs
of arson, including a police officer's garage that was
splashed with gasoline and lit Aug. 25.

The fires include a blaze Saturday at 526 Narva Place
that bears many signs of arson, including a
forced-open back door, although the final report is
still pending.

Police said the north side neighborhood is racked with
gang violence sparked by a close-distance rivalry that
took the life of a 7-year-old boy who was gunned down
May 8 while his father was out campaigning for a seat
on the City Council.

Reginald Robinson, a fire investigator with the East
Chicago Fire Department, said authorities believe
several of the fires can be linked directly to gang
violence since the shooting.

The first fire was at 4206 Tod Ave., which was owned
by Michael Silvas Sr., the grandfather of the boy who
was killed. Silvas was in jail on charges stemming
from the fatal gun battle when the fire broke out June
5.

Police said Silvas was involved with a small, upstart
gang that is a rival to the locally dominant Latin
Kings. In an interview Friday, the 47-year-old Silvas
denied the allegation.

"I'm not a gang member. If they can show me any proof,
pull it out," Silvas said.

Robinson said the fire was likely arson, based on the
discovery of a container of lighter fluid that was
recovered from the basement, which had been boarded up
before the blaze.

The next fire, police reports said, was July 26 at
4327 Olcott Ave., where a suspected Latin King member
had to jump from a window to avoid being burned. The
man told police he believed the fire was started by
unknown gang members.

Less than two weeks later, on July 7, a house owned by
a relative of the same man went ablaze. Authorities
said a Molotov cocktail was thrown inside the house at
533 Narva Place.

And then on Aug. 25, a garage owned by East Chicago
police Officer Kevin Harretos at 4144 Tod Ave. was
doused with gasoline and lit on fire, according to the
Fire Department's log. The fire was minor, and
Harretos extinguished it with a garden hose before
authorities arrived.

A fifth arson took place Aug. 12 at 4332 Tod Ave.,
next to Fontanes' church, but Robinson said that house
didn't fit the pattern of the others because it was
abandoned at the time.

Robinson said vagrants had been squatting on the
house's rear porch and were suspected of drug activity
that may have led to the blaze. Fontanes said she
thinks lightning could have caused it.

Lisa Alvarez, who lives in the center of all the
activity on 144th Street, doesn't know what to make of
it all.

"You don't want to come out of the house no more,"
Alvarez said. "When it hits 7 or 8 o'clock, I tell my
kids they have to stay in the house."

Police Chief Angelo Machuca did not return calls for
comment.