Norfolk, Va., teacher accused of arson denied bond

Southeast Region

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A school teacher accused of starting a fire at a home in Norfolk’s West Ghent neighborhood was denied bond Monday afternoon.

42-year-old Ryan Lee Elza was denied bond during a court hearing in the Norfolk General District Court. Elza has been charged with one count of arson of an occupied dwelling.

Elza joined Monday’s hearing via video conference. His wife testified in his defense at the hearing, saying he could come home or stay at a friend’s house if released on bond.

10 On Your Side has covered a string of suspicious fires in West Ghent. There have been five suspicious fires on the same block in 16 months. Residents believe the fires are all connected. Elza is only charged with the most recent fire at the McGee family’s house. The McGees are Elza’s neighbors.

A handful of West Ghent residents, including victims of other fires on the block that remain unsolved, went to the bond hearing in support of the McGees.

The fire marshal said the arrest came after a joint investigation with the Norfolk Police Department into the series of suspicious fires. Elza is currently being held at the Norfolk City Jail.

At Monday’s hearing, the prosecution laid out some of their evidence against Elza. Prosecutors said they have surveillance video of Elza leaving his apartment right before the McGee fire. They said the video shows Elza walking out of his apartment carrying charcoal and lighter fluid. Four minutes later, Elza returned with empty hands. The video captures audio of horns honking and chaos from the moments the McGee fire broke out, prosecutors said.

BELOW: Watch the jailhouse interview with 10 On Your Side and Elza.

Prosecutors also said they have forensic evidence against Elza. Investigators found charcoal and traces of a charcoal bag under Tiffany McGee’s car where the fire started. They found the same brand of charcoal Elza is seen carrying that night in the surveillance video.

Elza lived right across from the McGees and admits to having tense interactions with Pat McGee. Prosecutors point to those interactions as motive.

Prosecutors also argued Elza had the potential to be a flight risk. Prosecutors said Elza was investigated for another string of suspicious fires in the Larchmont neighborhood in 2010 and 2011. During the investigations, Elza left the area. Elza was never charged in related to the fires.

10 On Your Side confirmed Elza is a middle school teacher with Norfolk Public Schools. NPS officials said he was hired as an English teacher at Lake Taylor School. In court Monday, Elza’s attorney said he was still employed by NPS.

Elza will be back in court Sept. 30 for a preliminary hearing.

With their supporters, the McGees also attended the hearing. We caught up with them briefly afterward. They said they were relieved by the outcome of the hearing.

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