NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A former teacher accused of lighting a neighbor’s car and home on fire in Norfolk pleaded guilty to arson on Thursday.
Ryan Lee Elza, 43, was arrested after police said he set the fire off of Redgate and Claremont avenues in West Ghent in June 2021.
Elza pleaded guilty Thursday to one count each of arson and destruction of property. The arson conviction carries a penalty of up to life in prison.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jeff James said Elza started the fire beneath a car owned by his neighbor, Tiffany McGee. Days earlier, Elza had been in an argument with McGee’s husband Patrick.
The fire spread from the car in the driveway to the house and another vehicle.
The McGees and their two children were home at the time but were able to escape safely.
Initially, Elza told us in a jailhouse interview on July 9, 2021, that authorities had the wrong man – and he had nothing to do with the fire.
“My life is ruined at this point. I’m a teacher and nobody’s gonna hire me,” Elza said in July, 2021, when he had been a teacher at Lake Taylor Middle School.
But eventually Elza had a change of heart, sitting in his cell.
“He called his former wife and told her that he wanted the Fire Marshal’s number. She asked him why, and he said because I want to confess,” James said following Ela’s guilty plea.
On the night of the fire he was seen on surveillance footage carrying lighter fluid and charcoal — the same charcoal found under the victim’s car, where the fire started.
James was called in to prosecute the case from Suffolk, where he has handled many arson cases over the years.
“This is the first one I’ve ever seen started by charcoal,” he said.
Elza entered the guilty plea with no cap on a maximum sentence. Prosecutor James wanted it that way.
“I want to be able to argue for as severe a sentence as I can. There were children in the home when he set it on fire. He just devastated this family,” he said.
In November 2021, unsealed court documents revealed that Elza was also facing charges dating back to 2011 in the Larchmont neighborhood. Elza was living with his parents at the time.
Elza said that he was not mentally fit to stand trial at the time of his arrest. A mental health evaluation obtained by 10 On Your Side reveals that Elza suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and anxiety. Elza says his PTSD began when he witnessed a child burn to death in a 2016 car accident.
Elza told his evaluator that he was having homicidal thoughts about his cellmates at Norfolk City Jail. He was then moved to a single-person cell.
Elza said he had a confrontation with the victim earlier.
“I was sitting in a chair on my second floor balcony and he walked across the street and we had words with each other, and it wasn’t friendly,” Elza said of his exchange with his neighbor before the fire.