PETERSBURG, VA (WWBT) - The Petersburg Police Department says a 69-year-old man was arrested Thursday after police say he started a fire in the Petersburg Police station on E. Tabb Street.
Police said at a news conference on Monday morning that the suspect, Joseph Lester of Petersburg, is not connected to other suspicious fires in the city.
“We have never had anything like this happen before so it is a little unnerving,” Petersburg Police Captain Emanuel Chambliss said.
On Monday, the damage inside the Petersburg Police headquarters lobby was still visible.
“Officers detected smoke and observed smoke in the lobby. Then they ran to the lobby to extinguish the fire,” Chambliss said.
Police say Lester came into the building around 5:40 p.m. Oct. 18 asking for help.
Shortly after, the fire was started.
“There was a bank of plastic mail slots, there was paper in those slots that were set on fire. It melted and dropped into the wastebasket below and set that on fire,” Chambliss said.
Chambliss says no one is at the front desk after 5 p.m., but the department is now looking at changes to how guest enter.
“He does have a criminal history nothing involving arson,” Chambliss said.
This comes after eight suspicious fires in the Petersburg area.
Many thought maybe this could be the person responsible.
“We believe strongly he is not involved. We have been working with the arson task force, state police and the Bureau of alcohol, tobacco and firearms on the investigations. All agencies feel confident he is not involved,” Chambliss said.
Garfield Lee runs the boarding house on Pine street where Joseph Lester lives.
“I still can’t see him doing what he did,” said Lee, who has known Lester for almost 30 years.
“If he is on his medicine, he is the best person you will see. If he is without his medicine he get’s very aggressive at times,” Lee said.
Lee’s home is surrounded by destroyed and charred houses where a suspected serial arsonist is taking aim.
“It makes you very scared,” Lee said.
Lee says there’s one thought every time he smells smoke.
“I’m looking to see if mine is on fire,” Lee said.
As his friend remains behind bars, he’s hoping for better days.
“The only thing I can tell Joe, is pray. Pray Joe pray. You know how to do it,” Lee said.
Lester’s neighbors say he stayed to himself.
“He had to be mental for him to do something like that. I mean why would he go inside a police station and start the fire?” said one neighbor.
No suspects have been named in the separate arson incidents.