The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and federal marshals are on the hunt for a serial arsonist who allegedly torched nearly $350,000 worth of RVs last week in Riviera Beach.
A “wanted” poster released by the Florida Department of Financial Services on Thursday says that Benjamin Harris, 54, has an active warrant for 10 counts of second-degree arson in connection with a fire at Waits’ RV Center, just north of Blue Heron Boulevard and east of Interstate 95.
Owner Bill Waits said eight RVS were a total loss, including a top-of-the-line $180,000 model with marble countertops. After receiving a call from police, Waits watched the blaze from I-95.
“I thought I was out of business,” Waits said. “I was shocked.”
Waits was in for an even bigger surprise.
Surveillance video taken the night of the arson shows Harris wearing a T-shirt with the lettering “Palm Beach RV”, a rival business in suburban West Palm Beach owned by Waits’ older brother, Larry.
Harris is seen getting out of his vehicle with something in his hand, walking into the Waits’ RV Center lot, then later driving away as several vehicles erupt in flames.
Until Harris disappeared Aug. 7 — two days after the alleged arson — he was employed by Palm Beach RV.
Harris hasn’t been seen since a PBSO detective went to the business, located on North Military Trail near 45th Street, and interviewed him. Harris said he wanted to speak to an attorney and did not answer further questions. Without a warrant, Harris could not be arrested.
Bill Waits said he hasn’t spoken to his brother since it became known that Harris was employed by Larry Waits.
“He’s hasn’t called me,” Bill Waits said. “We’re competitors, but he’s my brother. I love him.”
Larry Waits could not be reached for comment Thursday. Keith Waits, Larry’s son and the general manager at Palm Beach RV, said “we were as shocked and surprised as anybody when we heard about this.”
Asked if the company knew that Harris has an extensive criminal history, including a long-prison term for arson, said: “We do now.”
Harris, a resident of Lake Worth, was convicted in 2005 of setting a chain of fires in northern St. Lucie County — and one in West Palm Beach that destroyed a nightclub — and was sentenced to eight years in federal prison.
Investigators said they believed Harris was responsible for at least 24 fires in St. Lucie County, although he was charged in fewer than half of those.
In 2007, Harris was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison for setting 26 fires in New York during 1991 and 1992. That sentence ran concurrently with the eight-year term he received in 2005.
“Everybody has to vent,” Harris told a confidential police informant in statements that were used to convict him in the St. Lucie and West Palm Beach arsons. “Everybody needs a way out. Some people get a punching bag. Some people fight in a bar. I release my energy in my own way.”
Harris was released from a federal prison on Jan. 19 and ordered to serve three years of probation.
The carcasses of the eight burned-out RVS still sit on Waits’ lot. Waits said he gets sick every morning having to see the damage “and smell it all day.”
Waits said he he wants to know why his business was targeted by Harris.
“Why would you pick us?” Waits said. “Is it a thrill? What’s the deal? I would love to know that answer.”
Staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.