Jailhouse interview: Man charged with arson after house fire in West Ghent claims innocence


NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — The man accused of starting a fire at a home in Norfolk’s West Ghent neighborhood is proclaiming his innocence.

Ryan Elza is charged with arson in one of a series of fires in the area.

In fact, he was a neighbor of the victims. But he says police and fire officials have the wrong guy.

Elza talked to 10 On Your Side from the Norfolk City Jail this week. He was arrested on Monday and charged with one count of arson of an occupied dwelling.

That charge stems from a house fire in West Ghent on June 11. The home belongs to Pat and Tiffany McGee, they were home with their two young children when the fire broke out under their car in the driveway.

West Ghent car fire (WAVY photo)

Elza lives right across Redgate Avenue from the McGees’ home. He admitted to having tense interactions with the McGees in the past but says he did not set their cars and home on fire.

Elza was home the night of the June 11 fire.

As fire officials investigated, he said he was doing his best to help then catch whoever started the blaze. Then he ended up in handcuffs. He said he was shocked by the turn of events.

As for the evidence against him, Elza said the Norfolk Fire Marshal’s investigators showed him surveillance video they had from the night of the fire. According to Elza, the video shows him carrying charcoal shortly before the fire started. It was the same brand of charcoal investigators found under Tiffany McGee’s car where the fire started.

“I’m allowed to carry charcoal. I’m allowed to carry lighter fluid,” explained Elza. “I was going to cook some hot dogs. Anybody who knows me knows I really like grilling.”

It was around 9:30 p.m. when the fire broke out. Elza told us he didn’t end up cooking the hot dogs but couldn’t give an explanation as to why.

The McGees have previously alleged Elza threatened them the night of the fire.

Elza claims he didn’t threaten Patrick McGee that night but said they “had words with each other and it wasn’t friendly.”

Elza did say he’s concerned about how the charges will play out for him. He was having trouble qualifying for a public defender.

“Every day is a nightmare that I’ve been in here,” said Elza during the jail interview.

Even if he’s proven not guilty, Elza says his life is ruined.

“I’m a teacher. Nobody is going to want to hire me. Nobody is going to want to have me as a teacher in their school division,” he said.

As we’ve previously reported, there have been five suspicious fires in this corner of West Ghent over the past 16 months. Resident believe they’re connected.

“I feel bad for anybody who has been negatively affected by this, you know, my wife and I have been negatively affected by this,” said Elza. “My wife’s car was set on fire.”

Elza’s wife’s car went up in flames in the middle of the night on June 2 of this year.

Elza claims he’s not responsible for any of the suspicious fires on his block.  

Elza had a bond hearing scheduled on Monday, July 12 at 1 p.m. in Norfolk. Bond was denied.

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