Mother, daughter, 3 men arrested in vehicle fires in south Fort Worth

A 39-year-old woman took her 8-year-old son along last weekend as she and four teenagers went “rolling” on the south side and set nine vehicles ablaze, according to an arrest warrant affidavit released Friday.

Sonji Lynn Hernandez and the teens were arrested Thursday night and Friday, Fort Worth Fire Department investigators announced.

One is her 17-year-old daughter, Amber Hernandez. The others were twin brothers Carlos Zapata-Leyva and Jose Zapata, 19, and Daniel Perez, 18.

The vehicles were set ablaze with gasoline in a roughly 2.5-mile area north and south of West Berry Street and near Cleburne Road/McCart Avenue. The fires were reported between 4:02 and 4:41 a.m. April 5.

Three of the vehicle fires were in the Ryan Place neighborhood. The others were south of West Berry.

The total damage estimate is $90,000, investigators said.

Each suspect faces nine charges of arson of a vehicle, said Brad Sims, an arson investigator for the Fort Worth Fire Department.

After a news conference Friday, Sims said they learned late in the investigation that an 8-year-old was along for the ride.

“That one took me aback,” Sims said. “We hope the best for him. What else can you do?”

The boy’s whereabouts on Friday could not be learned.

Another 17-year-old girl is believed to have been with the group. But as of Friday, Sims said, she was a “witness,” not a suspect.

“That’s not to say she can’t have charges filed against her in the future,” Sims said. “But for now, we only have reason to believe that she was present.

“I’m confident we got everyone involved.”

No motive

Sims said the suspects live in the area. The motive for setting the fires isn’t clear. They appear to have been “spur of the moment,” he said.

Investigators ruled out gang initiations as a motive. The suspects do not appear to have gang ties, he said.

An arrest warrant affidavit indicated that the first vehicle torched might belong to a former girlfriend of one of the teens.

Sims said investigators planned to interview all owners of the vehicles to determine if they were targeted or if the attacks were random. As of Friday, however, investigators had found no links among them, Sims said.

“They just started doing it, all in the company of an 8-year-old child,” he said.

The affidavit stated that a confidential informant and tips to CrimeStoppers helped investigators.

A witness in the 4700 block of Lubbock Avenue gave investigators surveillance video images of a white Chevrolet crew-cab pickup and a small dark sedan, followed by what appeared to be “an explosion or ignition of a fire” of a parked vehicle, the affidavit said.

The informant told investigators about meeting Sunday with Jose Zapata and Amber Hernandez, who are dating. The informant said Zapata said he and others “used gasoline on the cars and ignited the gasoline and thereby ignited the cars,” the affidavit said.

After Carlos Zapata-Leyva was summoned for questioning Friday, he told investigators that the group met early Saturday at Rosemont Park. He said Sonji Hernandez “wanted them to beat someone up,” the affidavit stated.

“They were unable to locate the individual, so they went ‘rolling,’ ” the affidavit said. Sonji Hernandez drove the dark sedan, and Perez drove the pickup, the affidavit stated. And the car fires ensued.

Sims said each suspect faces nine charges, which will require 45 arrest warrants.

“Now starts the overwhelming avalanche of paperwork,” Sims said.

Making the arrests “feels good,” he said. Fire investigators worked overtime, and Fort Worth police participated with help from patrol officers and units that deal with gangs and forensics.

But Sims also credited residents for offering security videos.

“It was huge,” he said, “especially in the beginning.”

Staff writer Deanna Boyd contributed to this report.

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