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Latest Forest Hills Fire Believed To Be 7th Linked To Serial Arsonist

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Police believe a serial arsonist struck again early Sunday morning in Queens.

A fire broke out at a home that was under construction on 69th Road near the Grand Central Parkway. It was the second time the home has gone up in flames in recent weeks, and it's the seventh suspicious fire in Forest Hills since October, CBS2's Ilana Gold reported.

"I saw flames. First I heard the fire tricks, and I saw Engine 305 on Queens Boulevard, and I was like 'oh no, not another one,'" Rodger Berlyne told CBS2's Hazel Sanchez.

Police have released a photo of a person of interest. The photo shows a man on a motorcycle with glasses, a green helmet and a scarf. Witnesses told police they saw the man on the motorcycle speed away from the scene seconds after the fire started.

Forest Hills Arson Person of Interest
Police want to question this man in connection with a series of arson fires in Forest Hills, Queens. (credit: NYPD)

One neighbor, who said he did not want to appear on camera, told CBS2 that he briefly spoke to the man on the motorbike.

"He had a mask on so you really couldn't see his face," he said.

Flames from Sunday's fire were seen shooting out of the roof as thick smoke poured from the structure. The fire was so intense it could be spotted from miles away. The blaze also burned part of the home next door.

"It's not pleasant, it's not pleasant," the beleaguered owner of the most recent burned construction site told CBS2's Steve Langford.

He joined a growing cry for greater police protection.

"We need extra security. We don't feel secure no more," he said.

No one was injured in the fire.

"My wife saw it first. She said, 'That house is on fire now,'" a neighbor told Gold. "And we were just getting ready to go to bed and looked out the window, and it was fully ablaze."

Seven sites in the neighborhood, all within walking distance from one another, have been intentionally set on fire in the last month and a half, investigators say. Police told CBS2 someone torched four homes under construction, along with an empty building and a storage facility. Investigators say all of the crimes are linked.

"It's hard to believe that with everybody watching that the thing could catch fire again, that somebody would actually be able to get in there and set it on fire," the neighbor said of Sunday's fire.

"This was shocking to walk by this morning because I literally mouthed the words 'another one?'" one woman told WCBS 880's Mike Xirinachs.

It was the second time that the under construction home has caught fire in recent weeks. CBS2 was on the scene after a failed bid to torch the site on November 15.

"Somebody start knocking on the door telling me 'open the door, open the door, you have fire, get out,'" a neighbor said.

Neighbors said they are so fed up that they were having an emergency meeting Sunday morning at the Jewish Community Center.

One man told 1010 WINS' Roger Stern that "everyone who's suffered with these fires, they were members of the Bukharian Jewish community."

A rabbi owns the house that was torched Sunday, Stern reported.

The NYPD has not designated the fires as a hate crime, saying it is still investigating.

Detectives are also looking closely at surveillance video of the suspect at the site of an arson fire the night before Thanksgiving.

Police told CBS2 that at one fire on 67th Drive, the arsonist left a note with a name behind. But when investigators followed that lead and tracked down the person with that name, he didn't appear to have anything to do with it and could account for his time.

"What's interesting here is there's no accelerant," NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said Wednesday of the fires. "It's combustible materials found at the scene."

The NYPD is offering a substantial reward for information leading to an arrest, Xirinachs reported.

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