PORT RICHEY — A 14-year-old Port Richey girl influenced by violent fiction she read online has been accused of setting fire to her house early Thursday morning with her mother and brother sleeping inside, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office reported.
The teenager was spurred by an argument earlier with her mother and became more upset as she stayed up reading an online book titled “Soul Eater,” which features stories about people who fight to the death to eat each other’s souls, the sheriff’s office reported.
The teen’s mother and 9-year-old brother, awakened by a smoke alarm, safely escaped the 1:45 a.m. blaze, officials said. The mother realized the girl was not with them and went back inside to find her, but was driven back by the heat, Sheriff Chris Nocco said.
When firefighters with Pasco County Fire Rescue arrived at a home on Hermitage Lane and learned the girl was missing, they went into the burning house three times in search of the girl before concluding she was not there, investigators said.
The teen had gone to a nearby park and from there she sent text messages to her mother, saying she was sorry, the sheriff’s office reported. Once authorities knew her location, she was taken into custody.
She could face one count of arson and two counts of attempted murder, but Nocco said his office is working with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office to decide how to charge the girl. In the meantime, she was taken to Pasco’s juvenile assessment center.
The Chasco Middle School student was questioned by detectives and admitted to setting the fire on purpose after the argument with her mother, Detective Daniel Toner said.
“Her mother was displeased with something she had not done around the house,” Toner said.
The sheriff’s office also reported that the girl kept a journal in which she discussed her interest in Slender Man, a fictional character who is the subject of numerous online stories that involve murder, and other online sites with similar dark themes. The Slender Man stories reportedly influenced a case in Wisconsin in which two 12-year-old girls were accused of stabbing a classmate, and the Port Richey teen mentioned that case in her journal, Nocco said.
“She’s involved in reading these things,” Nocco said. “They obviously affect her and her decision-making.”
The girl said as she read “Soul Eater,” she came to a scene in which two characters became engaged in a verbal argument, and that triggered thoughts of bullying incidents she endured in elementary school and her mother disciplining just before bedtime, Toner said.
That’s when she decided to set the house on fire with her family inside, he said.
According to her arrest report, the teen said she changed her nightgown and pants because they were too loose fitting and could catch fire. She said she obtained a lighter and mixed a bottle of rum with bleach and entered the garage, the report said.
She got a towel and bed sheet and placed them on the garage floor, spraying the liquid mixture on both items and lit the materials with the lighter, the report said. She said she made no attempt to wake up her mother and brother, according to the report.
As the fire spread, she left the garage through a side door, and ran to a nearby park where she slept in a bathroom, deputies said.
Her mother told deputies she woke up and discovered the electricity was not functioning and smelled the odor of smoke in the kitchen. She woke up her son and then entered her daughter’s room but couldn’t find her.
After leading her son out of the home, the mother went back inside to look for her daughter.
The mother said she later received text messages from her daughter while deputies were trying to locate the girl.
The text messages read: “Mom, I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I did it. Did any of [you] get hurt?” according to the report.
Neighbors expressed shock, saying the girl was a typical teen who had never done anything to raise alarm, and the family members were good neighbors.
“It’s a tragedy,” said Sandy Gilbert, who lives across the street. “I hate to see something like this happen to such a nice family.”
Gilbert said her husband, Tom, was up at the time of the fire, heard something outside and looked out to see the flames. He woke her, told her to call 911 and hurried across the street to try to help the family and to awaken the neighbors next door to the girl’s house because flames were getting close to their house.
“It was pop, pop, popping,” Gilbert said. “All of a sudden there was like an explosion.”
She’s unsure whether that was caused by the car parked in the garage, an aerosol can in the garage or something else. Firefighters later pulled the burnt car out of the garage and onto the driveway, where it remained later in the day.
Gilbert’s husband had successfully roused the neighbors, Jim Colucci and his mother, Dolores, who rushed out of their home, which was scorched on one side.
“The flames were like a rolling flame,” Jim Colucci said. “You could feel the heat across the street.”
Colucci said his house would have been damaged more, but firefighters arrived quickly and put down the flames. Colucci had praise for the firefighters and law enforcement officers who came to the scene, but was left in disbelief about the girl.
“It does surprise me,” he said. “The kids got off the (school) bus. They pretty much went in the house.”
Learning about the accusations, Colucci said, was “very disturbing.”