Not even 48 hours had passed since Brendan Posterick stood helplessly outside his Heights apartment and watched his car – the first one he worked for and bought with his own money – burn to a bloody crisp. So he had every right to be angry and every reason to point fingers and cast blame.
But he also had seen where the conversation in his community was headed. So Posterick went out of his way to extinguish the figurative flame, even though he couldn’t keep his 2017 Toyota Rav4 from being destroyed by a fire he did not start.
“I don’t feel I was targeted,” he told me last week as we stood near the charred curb where his car had been parked. “I don’t feel it’s political in any way.”
During a heated election cycle, and at a time when conspiracy theories spread like wildfire on social media, it was easy to wonder whether Posterick had been the victim of terrorism or a political argument turned ugly. One of his Heights neighbors, in fact, figured that Posterick must have had a Biden or Trump sticker on his car when told about what happened.
There likely was no shortage of theories among the other local residents who saw or heard about the series of fires across the Heights and Oak Forest areas during the last two weeks. First there were Molotov cocktails thrown toward two Lazybrook homes on the morning of Oct. 4, and over the next several days there were vehicles like Posterick’s torched on streets or behind buildings and sheds set fire near local businesses.
Judging by what residents discussed on Facebook, the apparent incidents of arson seemed to be increasing and becoming more severe with each passing night. So quite rightfully, much of the area was in a panic and wondering what would burn next.
Enter me, your local newspaper editor, whose most important responsibility at The Leader is keeping our community informed so we’re best equipped to watch out for each other and keep each other safe. Part of fulfilling that duty is to sort out what’s correct versus what’s conjecture and, much like Posterick wanted to do, set the record straight.
So as a rule, particularly when it comes to stories about suspected crimes, I don’t report what I see on social media without first verifying it with the appropriate authorities and the people directly involved. That was the case with the front-page story we published last week about the Molotov cocktails, which included the Houston Police Department and an impacted resident as the key sources.
Confirming the subsequent fires around the area, along with when they occurred, where they were located and how and why they were started, proved a little trickier. I again reached out to HPD’s public information office, but was told I needed to get the information I was seeking from the Houston Fire Department.
Well, as I told Houston Fire Chief Sam Pena last Saturday, trying to contact his public information office (PIO) was like reaching out to a ghost. The phone number listed on the City of Houston’s website did not work, my voicemails left with the public affairs office went unreturned, and so did an Oct. 6 email to one of the PIOs asking about the Molotov cocktail incidents in Lazybrook.
I sent another email Oct. 8 to inquire about the subsequent fires and, again, no acknowledgement. Not until I reached out directly to Pena at the end of the day did I get a response from HFD’s public information officers, who contacted me Oct. 9 but would not confirm details about any of the fires or answer any of my questions about them.
Instead, they referred me to a two-sentence news release that said the fire department wanted information from the public about the “rash of fires” it was investigating.
So I did what any good reporter would do and decided to do some investigating myself, driving by all the locations I had heard about, looking for signs of fires and asking nearby residents if they knew anything about them. I ended up finding Posterick at his apartment and remnants of the fire that damaged a shed behind El Moreliano Meat Market on West 34th Street, which allowed me to cobble together a story for our website that provided some details about what was going on and where.
Then last Saturday, Oct. 10, not long after sharing the story on our social media channels, I got a call from Assistant Fire Chief Ruy Lozano to let me know an arrest had been made and a news briefing with Pena was scheduled within the hour.
HFD was much more forthcoming after that point, providing the name and age of the suspect and later the seven addresses where he is alleged to have started fires on Oct. 7. And it’s become clearer that the person accused of committing these crimes likely was not motivated by a political cause.
But as of press time this Wednesday, the department had not fulfilled my request for a list of times, dates and places where it responded to fires in the area from Oct. 2 until Oct. 10.
HFD said it is not immediately providing that information, which is considered public record under Texas law, because doing so could jeopardize its ongoing investigation into other recent fires in the area. I understand that, because HFD also has a responsibility to keep the community safe and generally does that job well.
And to Pena’s credit, he has been accessible and responsive and helped me get in touch with his public information office in the first place.
Still, during the critical few days when fires were being started and multiple neighborhoods were on alert, members of the public would have been best-served to know when and where the fires were happening so they could take the necessary precautions and ultimately keep themselves and their families safe.
Sure, HFD might have gotten its guy in the end, but could some of the fires have been prevented if the community would have had more information at its disposal at an earlier time?
Either way, we’re going to continue asking questions and will continue to keep you as informed as we possibly can. We’re also going to remain responsible with the information we publish, which means we’re going to continue corroborating what we see on social media before relaying it to our readers.
Now more than ever, it’s important to differentiate truth from theory. And the more facts we have at our disposal, the easier it is to dispel rumors and the fears they can create.