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Elderly man narrowly escapes serial arsonist’s inferno



Elderly Jewish Melrose resident Lewis Neuburger stood helpless on the side of the road in the middle of the night and watched his cherished home of 55 years literally go up in smoke. He had nothing but the clothes on his back and the slippers on his feet.

The fire is believed to be the work of a serial arsonist who allegedly has been terrorising Johannesburg’s northern suburbs over the past few years, often getting to know the house and family’s habits intimately before spending time in the space and setting it on fire.

The morning after the fire, Neuburger begged a fireman to try and find his treasured, simple gold neck chain given to him by his beloved late wife, Carol, on Valentine’s Day in 1971.

“I woke up and reached for it, but it wasn’t there,” said the 82-year-old man.

The fireman went searching through the rubble in the exact place where he was told it might be.

“After some time, he emerged holding it in his hand,” said Neuburger tearfully.

For the past 51 years, before going to sleep each night, Neuburger placed his neck chain with an engraved round disc on the night stand next to his bed. He would start his day exactly the same way by putting it back on first thing in the morning. When his wife passed away last year, he placed her wedding ring on the chain so that he could always feel her presence close to his heart.

He had no time to grab it when the raging fire broke out, leaving him just enough time to scramble to safety.

“Everything is gone. There’s nothing left,” he told the SA Jewish Report. “A lifetime of memorabilia, beautiful things that my wife collected over the years, all gone. The only thing I have left is a pair of pyjamas, a pair of slippers, and a gown. I had my cellphone, which I used as a torch. That necklace which I’ve worn every day of my life, is being cleaned,” he said.

There’s also a bunch of decorative locks and keys which survived the fire, he said.

“During our travels, we found a bunch of old beautiful locks and keys in Portugal, which we schlepped home starting a new collection that hung on the wall in the living room on either side of a clock. They survived. This is crazy, it’s surreal,” he said.

Neuburger went to sleep at about 22:30 on Wednesday, 6 September. He woke up to the sound of a strange noise which he thought came from the rafters of his home, built in 1923.

“I got up to inspect where the noise was coming from, and when I opened the entrance-hall door, all I could see was smoke. I dashed back and escaped to the courtyard where I met my gardener, Evans Bipa, who thoughtfully had the keys to the gate to let us out. Baruch Hashem, we’re alive!”

“All I can say is that in this day and age, people should put their photographs in the cloud because mine are all up in smoke.”

A neighbour, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his wife woke him sometime between 04:00 and 05:00. She thought she heard the noise of pattering water droplets, but the sound turned out to be the crackling of flames. The neighbour saw the fire, and went into the street, where he and another neighbour encountered a young, slim, well-spoken, well-dressed man who was wearing dark clothes. The stranger said he was out jogging. Only later did the neighbour realise that it was probably the arsonist, who is known to hang around the crime scene, watching his handiwork destroy people’s lives.

He said the stranger looked similar to the man in pictures released by the South African Police Service (SAPS) on 10 September. In this media statement from the office of the provincial commissioner of the police in Gauteng, the SAPS asked the public to assist it in “locating Sentious Novans, who is suspected of being involved in multiple cases of arson, murder, and burglary in the east and north parts of Johannesburg in previous months. In all the incidents, the suspect will break into affluent houses and set the houses alight. Novans was previously sentenced to seven years, of which four years was suspended for five years.”

CAP said the suspect set the kitchen alight. “The homeowner woke up to loud banging and smelled smoke which resulted in him exiting the property and pressing his panic button, which alerted CAP.

“The fire was extinguished but unfortunately had spread through the house before being doused. A full investigation is underway with teams working hard utilising all data sources and resources to locate the suspect,” CAP said. “Preliminary reports show that the suspect is the same perpetrator from previous arson attacks. We have expended thousands of hours to find this suspect, and will continue to work tirelessly to track and apprehend him.”

CAP’s Sean Jammy told the SA Jewish Report that the arsonist had been involved in multiple incidents across northern Johannesburg for several years. “The community is deeply affected by this, and the CAP team is conscious that people are looking to us to deliver justice. We take that responsibility to heart, and are absolutely committed to doing that. We hope that we’re close to catching him. This is a psychopath, a very sick individual who apparently derives joy from other people’s misfortune.” He emphasised that this wasn’t a “South African problem” and the Jewish community wasn’t the target. It was something that could happen anywhere in the world.

“CAP has worked closely with the SAPS, and provided the images that the SAPS distributed,” Jammy said.

“It was a massive fire, and it spread very quickly,” said the neighbour. “They contained the fire – it was too late to put it out. The house is totally gutted – the roof caved in. You can still smell burning in the air.”

He said the whole neighbourhood came out to assist the victim and fire-fighters. One person offered the victim a place to stay, and people are delivering meals to him and his gardener.

“It’s terrifying to know the arsonist did this so close to me,” said the neighbour. “It affects the whole neighbourhood. You wonder, ‘Am I next?’”

Andre Snyman, the founder of eblockwatch, a community crime-fighting communication system, has been tracking the arsonist since his first attacks. He thinks the arsonist lives in the area, and has made an effort to blend in.

In January, Fidelity ADT Chief Executive Wahl Bartmann offered a R100 000 reward for information leading to the capture of the arsonist.

According to Psychology Today, “Pyromania, the term for pathological fire setting, is a rare disorder characterised by the intentional and repeated setting of fires. People with pyromania are deeply fascinated by fire and related paraphernalia. They may experience feelings of pleasure, gratification, or a release of inner tension or anxiety once a fire is set.

“Individuals with pyromania engage in fire setting, but do so for distinctly personal reasons, often connected to another psychological disorder. They don’t set fires for monetary gain, for ideological reasons, to cover up criminal activity, to express anger or revenge, or as a result of a delusion, a hallucination, or impaired judgement.”

This fits the profile of the arsonist, who isn’t known to steal, even though he often targets wealthy homes. However, his actions have become more extreme, from targeting empty homes, to targeting homes with people inside, to intentionally trying to harm people. One of his victims, the elderly Risto Anjelopolj, died in intensive care.

Anyone with information is urged to contact the investigating officer, Warrant Officer Magongoa on 071 351 4189 or Lieutenant Colonel Prowse on 079 498 2435. The Crime Stop line can also be contacted on 08600 10111. Anonymous tip-offs can be reported via the MySAPS app, which can be downloaded on any smartphone.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Joe

    Sep 21, 2022 at 10:55 am

    Maybe post a photo of the arsonist? How can we help if we don’t know what he looks like?

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