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Florida man burned down his homes in staged ‘hate crime’, officials say

By the time a Florida detective responded to a call about a suspicious fire in March, the house had already burned down. Outside, someone had put up a white sign with a swastika, according to investigators. He said, “This is our land, Latinos are not welcome.” Nearby, another house belonging to the same person burned down minutes later, with a similar sign appearing.

Later that day, Clay County Sheriff’s Deputies met with the owners of the homes, who told them that no one had visited the properties for a few days. Detectives left to continue their investigation, but as they reviewed mortgage documents, phone records and video footage, they were led back to the owner.

Authorities said the man had funded loans for the homes from a mortgage company in October. But he had missed all of his monthly payments, resulting in an outstanding balance of more than $39,000, investigators said. He told a colleague who later spoke to law enforcement that a friend suggested he burn down his homes for insurance money, officials said.

Detectives determined that the owner burned down his own homes on March 13 and attempted to cover up his crimes by presenting them as a hate crime. The sheriff’s office arrested the suspect, 44-year-old George Carneiro, on Friday and charged him with second-degree arson.

“I have zero tolerance for anyone who comes into our community and uses hate as a cover for their own schemes,” Sheriff Michelle Cook said in a statement. “We are fortunate that incidents like this are extremely rare in Clay County.”

Carneiro and his attorney did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday night.

At both homes in Middleburg, Florida, detectives said they found a five-gallon fuel tank near the back door. The fires occurred about 26 minutes apart in homes separated by just over four miles, according to an arrest report from the sheriff’s office.

Investigators said they quickly learned the homes were purchased by the same person for a total of $110,000. Video footage showed a white Nissan pickup near homes around the time the fires occurred, detectives said.

The owner lived about 32 miles away in St. Johns, Fla., investigators said. When officers met him there, he denied owning a van and did not express concern about the messages left at the houses, according to the arrest report.

“The defendant appeared nervous during our brief interaction and repeatedly asked for our advice on how he should proceed,” the arrest affidavit reads.

That day, detectives learned that the man’s first loan payments with 21st Mortgage Corporation were due in November. He did not pay that or any payments in the following months, leaving him with a debt of $39,345.05, investigators said.

The suspect worked for a paint company and an industry colleague told investigators in April that Carneiro had asked him on March 11 to buy and fill fuel tanks for a job, according to the arrest report. The man responded to that request the next day — unaware of Carneiro’s plan — and brought them with him to a construction site in St. Johns on March 13, investigators said.

When Carneiro arrived at the job site that morning, he said he had to borrow his colleague’s Nissan without explanation, the arrest report states. When he returned about two hours later, three of the car’s four fuel tanks were missing, investigators said. His colleague told detectives that Carneiro offered him money not to speak to law enforcement, according to the arrest affidavit.

After investigators received a search warrant for Carneiro’s phone records last month, they said, they found his phone ringing on cell towers near homes around the time they were on fire. He was arrested and taken to the Clay County jail, but a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office said he has since been released on bail.


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