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NYPD using surveillance cameras to crack Forest Hills arson case

A poster asking for information about a string

A poster asking for information about a string of arsons on display in the Forest Hills section of Queens. Since Oct. 20, seven fires set in Forest Hills have damaged or destroyed 13 buildings, including several under renovation and owned by members of the Bukharian Jewish community, police say. Credit: AP / Seth Wenig

Police are installing video surveillance cameras around homes undergoing renovations in Forest Hills and asking property owners to reorient any private cameras to give more street coverage as investigators press the hunt for a serial arsonist, officials said Tuesday.

The NYPD plan to put up the cameras was revealed at a meeting Tuesday between city and state officials and members of the Bukharian Jewish community where seven arson fires have damaged 13 buildings, including a number of large scale homes undergoing renovations, since Oct. 20.

In addition, the reward leading to the arrest and capture of whoever set the fires was raised from $12,500 to $62,500 with the addition of funds contributed by the Bukharian community, said people who attended the closed-door meeting but didn’t want to be identified.

A spokesman for the NYPD said police had been installing permanent cameras in the vicinity.

The fires damaged homes under renovation that included planned grandiose structures of the kind Bukharian immigrants had before coming here from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, said Democratic City Council member Karen Koslowitz, who attended the meeting and represents Forest Hills.

She said there are at least three homes undergoing renovations left unscathed by the fires. Those homes are getting extra attention from the police and the community, Koslowitz said.

“It is just a pity, the people work very hard,” she said of the Bukharian immigrants.

While the property owners impacted have been Jewish and the NYPD hate crimes unit is investigating, police have not determined whether the arson fires are bias crimes or the work of a person or people unhappy with the ornate architectural style of the structures, Koslowitz said.

The latest fire occurred just after midnight Sunday at a 69th Road address, a block north of Jewel Avenue. Ironically, Koslowitz said, she had driven past the building just before midnight Saturday. After getting ready for bed, Koslowitz said Tuesday, she heard the sound of numerous fire engines and thought “Oh no, here we go again.”

Last week, NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said a note found at one of the fire scenes appeared to be in code and might have been a lead. However, after consulting with an expert who broke the code, detectives determined the note was likely a diversion left by whoever set the fires and what Boyce called “a nonlead.”

One law enforcement source said it is likely the arsonist is someone who lives in the Forest Hills area.

Police do have a surveillance image of a man in a hoodie seen walking within the property line of one of the buildings before it was damaged by fire on Nov. 25 at a 67th Drive address.

After the Sunday fire, the NYPD released a photo of a man on a motorcycle whom investigators identified as a person of interest. But NYPD Commissioner William Bratton said Monday the man had been identified and was cleared of any involvement in the fire.

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