Statesville, NC – Four North Carolina State Highway Patrol (NCHP) troopers’ patrol vehicles were set ablaze outside a 7-Eleven store on Monday while the troopers were inside taking a break, according to investigators.
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS) said the incident occurred at the 7-Eleven store located in the 200-block of Turnersburg Highway at approximately 9:50 p.m. on April 18, The Charlotte Observer reported.
The troopers had met up to have a cup of coffee and were sitting inside the store when the suspect struck, WJZY reported.
Witness Melissa Rivera said she saw the suspect next to the patrol vehicles, which were parked in very close proximity to the business’s propane tanks.
“We noticed he was pouring something, and then next thing – it was like slow motion but it was only a second later – voom! Flames,” Rivera told WJZY. “I scurried out of my car and went to tell the troopers that were inside.”
The troopers immediately jumped up and ran outside after Rivera alerted them to the blaze.
“They were able to access fire extinguishers from their trunks and, thank goodness, extinguished the fire before the cars were totally destroyed,” NCHP Sergeant Daniel Hall told WJZY.
None of the troopers were injured during the incident, although a few did experience sore throats as a result of inhaling smoke and fumes while they were putting out the flames, WJZY reported.
The suspect was found carrying a gas can near the scene, according to the news outlet.
One of the troopers recognized him as 49-year-old Daniel Francis Zelo, The Charlotte Observer reported.
Zelo was taken into custody without further incident and has been charged with four counts of burning personal property.
His bond was set at $100,000.
Police said the target of the attack was law enforcement in general, but not specifically the troopers who were involved.
Sgt. Hall said Zelo’s children had been removed from his care by law enforcement in the past, WJZY reported.
“He felt like he might pay us back somehow that way,” the sergeant told reporters. “He was apologetic.”
The fire caused approximately $20,000 worth of damage to the four patrol vehicles, according to the NCHP.
Three of the cruisers had to be towed from the scene because they were so badly damaged, The Charlotte Observer reported.
Sgt. Hall said that due to a shortage of patrol vehicles, the cars will go right back on the road once they’re back up and running, regardless of the cosmetic damage.
“They’re gonna drive around like that with holes in their bumpers for who knows how long,” Sgt. Hall told WJZY.