12 Heidelberg fires, all a mystery

Arsons at Detroit art project unsolved, despite reward, publicity, security video

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It's been nearly two years since fires began destroying artist Tyree Guyton's works, known as the Heidelberg Project, on Detroit's east side. For investigators, the multiple fires serve as high-profile reminders of how tough arson is to solve.

The fires, which all appear to have been intentionally set, have gained worldwide media attention. A bounty of $45,000 is being offered. And in the latest incident, a surveillance video captured someone in a black hoodie starting a Nov. 23 fire.

Despite the reward, press coverage and security cameras, arson officials reluctantly admit they are not close to an arrest in the 12 fires.

"There is not much to say," said Charles Simms, chief of the Detroit Fire Department Arson Squad. "If we don't have witnesses or see a pattern with a clear motive, then, it's tough."

In arson, most key evidence is destroyed by the crime itself. "You don't have an easy bloodstain on the floor or slugs or casings waiting for you," said Capt. Patrick McNulty, an arson investigator. Any evidence has to be uncovered by sifting through the charred scene of the crime.

"The truth is, without a witness, arsons are hard cases to figure out," said Donald Dawkins, a special agent of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The Detroit bureau of the ATF has joined the Heidelberg investigation. National studies have found that fewer than one in five arsons will be solved, the lowest clearance rate of all serious crimes.

The targets in this case are the one-of-a-kind creations of Guyton, who uses his childhood neighborhood near Mount Elliott and Mack as his canvas. Starting 29 years ago, Guyton has covered a two-block area with hundreds of discarded items left by former residents: dolls, record albums, rusty bicycles, clocks and car hoods. The pothole-filled streets are painted with polka dots. The trees are filled with items such as shoes hanging from their laces.

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On Friday afternoon, Guyton said he refuses to be downbeat about the fires.

"I'm going to kick their ass with love," Guyton said about whomever torched his art. "I just want to send out love." He made the remarks before about 250 people at a University of Michigan event announcing his future plans.

His wife, Jenenne Whitfield, who serves as executive director of the nonproft overseeing the project, told The News after the event that the fires had cost about $250,000 to provide extra security and other measures.

Like many artistic ventures, money dedicated to the project ebbs and flows from year to year. Guyton's nonprofit ran a deficit of $132,000 in 2012 after two solid years of revenue growth, according to its federal tax returns. The project received $562,000 in grants and contributions in 2011, but those contributions declined to $178,000 in 2012, according to IRS documents.

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The group's 2013 IRS forms listing financial details are not available online.

According to the records, Guyton was paid $23,000 to $27,000 a year between 2010 and 2012. The city, meanwhile, has threatened to seize nine properties on or near Heidelberg for unpaid taxes. The nonprofit challenged and won appeals on tax bills for eight of the properties and is in the process of challenging another, said Daniel Hoops, general co-counsel of the nonprofit Heidelberg.

Guyton declined comment for this article, but told The News earlier that he had a dream that foretold the first of the fires, which occurred pre-dawn May 2, 2013, in the Obstruction of Justice (O.J.) House. By the time firefighters arrived, the empty two-story structure had become a raging bonfire, fed by the hundreds of paintings that blanketed the wood-frame house.

Guyton and volunteers had begun to create something new from what remained, but the structure was set ablaze again in October 2013.

Other Guyton structures destroyed in unsolved arsons are the Party Animal House, the War Room, the Clock House, the House of Soul and Penny House. His Numbers House received minor smoke damage in an Oct. 9, 2013 fire. A separate installation called the Detroit Industrial Gallery, created by artist Tim Burke, has also been destroyed, as long with another home called the Birthday Cake that Guyton fashioned for a friend.

CLOSE

For 28 years the artist Tyree Guyton has been transforming the east side Detroit neighborhood where he grew up into a found-object sculpture landscape recognized around the world. The Heidelberg Project is named for the main street of artworks.

Through a crowdfunding campaign and help with foundations, the nonprofit last year raised about $72,000 for surveillance cameras and security patrols. The cameras produced fleeting images of someone whose face is cloaked by a hoodie setting fire to the Taxi House. The image shows the person carrying a white plastic jug that resembles the container of a half gallon of milk. The figure enters the back of the small wood-frame house. Moments later, a ball of flames erupts.

The blaze gets out of the control so quickly the person scurries away. It looks like part of his upper body is on fire.

Arson investigators thought that video would lead to a big break. In early December, they called local hospital emergency rooms seeking information on anyone who had been treated for burns.

Bingo. A burn victim was treated shortly after the Heidelberg fire.

False alarm. The guy had an accident while trying to fry a turkey in a vat of oil.

"Investigators have told us this could take one to three years to solve this case," said Whitfield.

Anyone with information about the fires is asked to call the Detroit Fire and Arson tip line at (313) 628-2900.

laguilar@detroitnews.com | Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN

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More in this series:

Detroit pays high price for arson onslaught

Inside Arson Squad: Hectic days, senseless fires

Map/database: Search Detroit's arson fires by ZIP code

Data show Detroit is arson capital

Tragedy motivates Detroit arson investigator

Duggan pushes Detroit arson reforms

Reforms may douse blazes, advocates say

Go to the special section on arson

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