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Couple planning to wed shaken by arson


Just days before their long-planned wedding, a Santa Rosa couple Wednesday stood outside the burned shell of their newly remodeled house, the victims of an arsonist who is burglarizing homes and then setting them on fire.

For Melissa Haney and Calvin Sanders, both 42, the crimes cost them their Banyan Place home.

The overwhelming shock is making it difficult to concentrate on Sunday's wedding, when 130 family members and friends will gather to celebrate the couple's future.

"If you want to steal our stuff, why did you have to light our house on fire?" said Haney, trying to grasp their loss.

"We're just really concerned these people get caught. Somebody is going to get hurt," said Haney.

On Saturday, the couple became the latest victims of a burglar who is suspected of breaking into five homes in the Coffey Park neighborhood since early April.

The last two homes were set on fire by the intruder, a dangerous escalation that worries investigators and neighbors.

A Hopper Avenue house, about four blocks away, sustained major fire damage during an April 20 burglary, police reported Monday.

Detectives are not sure if one or more burglars are responsible for the crime spree, but say all of the break-ins appear to have been done by the same people, citing the proximity of the homes and undisclosed details about the crimes.

Burglary and arson are a rare combination, which is puzzling detectives.

"We are working hard to try and develop leads. It's got our attention," said Sgt. Mike Lazzarini. "We don't have burglars that commit arsons like this."

The crimes also are frightening area residents.

"If you stand on my roof you can throw a rock at each one of those (five) places," said one neighbor, who spoke on condition that her name not be used.

Worried neighbors are contacting each other with phone calls, emails and fliers to make sure all are alerted, she said.

"It's really scary," the neighbor said. "We have to look out for each other. Nobody is immune to this."

Sanders and Haney have no idea why their home was targeted, other than they were out at the time. They figured they missed crossing paths with the burglar by minutes when they returned home Saturday night shortly before midnight.

They bought the Banyan Place home about two years ago, wanting a fixer-upper that Sanders, a general contractor, would tackle himself.

Days before the fire he'd finished painting the outside, gray with white trim, and put on the new white front door with decorative glass.

The white door now has black burn marks. Inside, the house mostly is a charred mess, permeated by the heavy, acrid odor of smoke.

"The last 19 months I've been working non-stop on that place to get it beautiful," said Sanders. "To watch your hard work go up in flames just adds to the heartbreak."

The couple discovered the fire when they arrived home from pre-wedding errands and helping a family member with a broken-down car.

While Haney called 911, Sanders grabbed a long garden hose, thinking he would try to put out the flames, which hadn't yet spread through the interior.

Realizing the effort wouldn't work, they decided to wait for Santa Rosa firefighters, until they remembered their five-week-old kitten remained inside.

Sanders ran to the side of the house, pushed open a side door and dropped to the floor, facing black smoke and heat. The tiny gray kitten was in an office, in its little pen, still too young to roam the house.

"I crawled to the pen, reached in and grabbed her and got her out," said Sanders.

Wednesday morning the couple cradled the kitten, newly named Smokey.

"She's our therapy," said Sanders.

Unable to live at the house, they were initially aided by the local Red Cross with money for a few nights lodging, food and clothing. They've since moved to temporary quarters.

"We are just very grateful. Friends and family, neighbors, have been wonderful. Red Cross has been wonderful. We're just happy we're alive and we got the kitten out," said Haney.

The only things that could be salvaged were the contents of the garage. Everything inside the house had been burned, heated beyond repair or smelled too badly to save, she said.

The house will need to be demolished to its frame and rebuilt, which Sanders vowed to do.

But first, they have a wedding to hold.

Her dress, still at an alteration shop, is smoke free. Their rings survived the fire, as did their birth certificates, which they needed Wednesday to get their marriage license.

Haney, an employee in the state Department of Rehabilitation who just earned her master's degree, said for the rest of the week they would put the crimes behind them.

"We just want to celebrate," said Haney. "It's going to be a good day."