Police have arrested a homeless man on charges of arson and burglary in connection with a dramatic March 12 house fire on Rockland Key that choked an entire neighborhood.
Robert Wade Fordham, 51, on Friday remained locked up at the Stock Island Detention Center on $500,000 bond.
Fordham had worked at the property and at times was allowed to sleep in a storage area beneath the house, which was under renovation after being damaged during Hurricane Irma last September.
He had been allowed on the property to watch homeowner Robert Lee Soo's dog as Soo had been hospitalized. But the dog went missing, and Fordham was seen apparently drunk so Soo fired Fordham.
Soo said he had hired Fordham to work on his home contingent on his sobriety. Fordham, who has lived in halfway houses and homeless shelters, struggles with alcohol and drug addiction, according to Detective Howard William Bennett, of the state Division of Investigative and Forensic Services in the Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations.
The day after his firing, Fordham returned to the stilt house at 20 Calle Uno, according to state fire investigators, to steal a pork shoulder from a freezer kept in the storage area. He admitted to taking the piece of meat, which he dumped off at an acquaintance's boat in a huff, but said he doesn't remember what else happened at the Rockland Key home. A witness reported seeing Fordham at the home the day of the fire leaving on a bicycle minutes before smoke began to pour out from the house, according to an arrest affidavit.
The pork shoulder ended up going to waste. James Peter Talarico, 51, who lives on a boat and sometimes gives Fordham rides, said he was on his boat with a guest March 12 when Fordham stopped by carrying a package.
Talarico told him that he had company and that he was not welcome at the time. Fordham, who Talarico said appeared drunk and "aggressive" in attitude, threw the package to the deck stating “stew this” and left in anger, investigators reported. When Talarico examined the package he saw a defrosting pork shoulder, which he threw away.
The fire at 20 Calle Uno started on a mattress with gasoline, investigators said. The house was unoccupied at the time and there were no injuries, officials said.
Fordham was arrested April 9, but authorities announced his arrest on Friday without explanation. His arrests on arson and burglary charges are not in the Monroe County Sheriff's mugshot system.
Monroe County Fire Rescue responded to the fire at 5:45 p.m. March 12, finding the home fully engulfed as black smoke filled the neighborhood.
Crews from the Stock Island, Cudjoe Key, Sugarloaf Key and Big Coppitt Key stations responded to put out the fire that was called in by a neighbor. Some nearby homes were evacuated.
Rockland Key is about six miles north of Key West.