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Suspected serial palm tree arsonist caught in Galveston

Officials think Jason Smith, 53, is responsible for nearly 30 fires in the past 20 years.

GALVESTON, Texas — Galveston residents are able to sleep a little easier Monday night knowing an accused serial arsonist has been caught.

The Galveston Fire Marshal's Office said Jason Smith is suspected of setting palm trees on fire for the past 20 years.

The fires oftentimes led to larger structure fires.

As of Monday night, Smith was still in jail. He was being held on a $100,000 bond for what prosecutors said was his most recent fire. Investigators believe he's responsible for nearly 30 more.

Authorities said surveillance video helped lead to his arrest. On May 30, a video showed a dark block on 32nd Street. The neighborhood was still asleep but a man on a bike could be seen riding up to a home. Then, a flicker of light can be seen near a palm fan and then, about 15 seconds later, the person on the bike rides away.

Minutes later, that little spark turned into a blaze, taking with it not only the palm tree but the house, too. The home was more than 100 years old. That home will survive, but others did not.

A few days after the fire, authorities were able to identify Smith, 53, as the man in the video. He's the primary suspect in 27 active arson investigations, according to authorities.

"Thank God for cameras," George West said.

West has run a tree-cutting service on Galveston Island for 26 years. He had wanted to catch what he called a serial palm tree arsonist for years.

"I'm so happy when the day they caught him. It was the best day in Galveston when they caught that guy. It was a blessing," he said.

Several years ago, West put an ad in the paper offering a $1,000 reward for the suspect's arrest.

"That's why I put video cameras up here. I put them up here because I said, 'I'm going to catch this guy. Come over here to the park and burn them, I'm going to catch this guy,'" West said. "When I got my newspaper the next morning, I had a little lighter fluid can wrapped up in my newspaper stuck back in the plastic in front of my shop."

Due to the nature of his work, West followed the arsons for years. He figured out the suspect only struck between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. He also knew the arsonist generally stuck to a defined area -- primarily setting palm trees on fire between 26th and 32nd streets. He even figured out which kind of trees he liked to set on fire.

"He loves Mexican palms. They light up too good for him. He loves it, I guess," West said.

West doesn't understand the infatuation.

"We lost thousands and thousands of palm trees from the freeze and this guy wants to continue to burn palm trees. Like, what is your problem, man?" West said.

West, along with countless others, are happy Smith was caught and grateful that no one was killed.

"Why would you want to burn a healthy palm tree?" West said.

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