CLAY COUNTY, Fla. – Two house fires in a remote, rural area of Clay County are being investigated as arson after county officials say they found evidence of a targeted attack.
The two homes are several miles away from each other in the Clay Hill area outside Middleburg — one on Sharon Lane and the other on Conifer Circle — and the fires sparked within a half-hour of each other Monday morning.
There was no one living at either of the newly-built houses at the time. In fact, they were actually on the market to be sold when these fires were started.
According to the Clay County Sheriff’s Office and witnesses, these fires were no accident. What leads the Sheriff’s Office to believe these two fires might be arson is the fact that a message was left at each scene — a message of hate. According to Cook, the message left at each scene indicates a “potentially bias based motive.”
People living nearby captured a photo of one of the messages as it was being seized by law enforcement as evidence. The xenophobic message says “hands off our lands — Latinos are not welcome” followed by an expletive and a swastica, a symbol of white supremacy.
“Something along the lines of ‘our lands,’ like, it’s nobody’s land, it’s for sale,” said Lyndsey Lloyd-Perry, who has a relative who lives near one of the targeted homes. “It just is kind of weird that somebody was creeping around enough to like set something that would explode and blow the roof out of there.”
An “explosion” is how one neighbor described what happened at the other house. She asked to not be identified.
“I figured the world has got so much hate in it right now, and people just keep adding to it, and it’s getting scarier because this is close to home,” she said. “This is very, very close.”
She said, being in a same-sex marriage and a multi-racial family, she feels particularly on edge.
“I’m an openly gay person and seeing that sign, whether it’s just isolated to the owner or the investor, it’s scary. It’s scary for my children. It’s scary for my family. You just don’t know the scenario in what they were truly after and trying to prove,” she said. “I think if everybody just had a little bit more of an open heart and an open mind and realize that, you know, we’re all different kinds of people and that if you don’t like it, you don’t have to just turn your head. That’s all you have to do. There’s so much hate, stop adding to it.”
Lillie Pratt also lives nearby and was upset by the attack.
“I was mad. I’m infuriated. Naturally, is a threat to everybody. I mean, if you even look like a Latino, now you’re under threat,” Pratt said. “Compared to everything else that’s going on in the world, can’t we find something else to do besides this?”
Pratt has family members who live in the same area.
“I would really like to see this prosecuted, you know, for something like this. This upsets everybody,” Pratt said.
News4JAX did some digging and learned that the same person owns both of the homes that were hit and that they are the only two properties that the person owns in Clay County. It’s unclear whether that person, who bought the homes last year as they were being built, was the target of the attacks. News4JAX reached out the company that the person is associated with but did not receive a response by publication of this article.
The state fire marshal and the Sheriff’s Office continue to investigate the fires and said more information could be released soon.