LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – It was a chaotic scene at a Polk County home Sunday morning, involving a stranger beating on the windows, firefighters and flames on the rooftop, according to a north Lakeland woman.
The alleged arson victim did not want her name disclosed as she described her experience.
“It was chaos,” she said.
The woman along with her husband and 28-year old daughter were sleeping at their home in the Plantation Ridge Development when a woman started banging on the doors and windows.
The homeowner did not recognize the woman and grew worried she was a threat.
She went to get her firearm as a precaution. Then she heard something about a fire.
“I actually ran out the back door half dressed and seeing the flames licking off of the roof and ran back in and started screaming to everybody else, ‘oh my God the house is on fire, the house is on fire’,” she said.
Soon after, firefighters and deputies were on scene.
“[One deputy] actually saw our suspect throw one of seven molotov cocktails,” said Sheriff Grady Judd at news conference Sunday.
Deputies chased the suspect, Luke Neely, 30, to I-4 where deputies were able to ram his vehicle.
Deputies shot him after he exited the truck, allegedly in possession of an AR-15 and a handgun.
“We hit Luke three times. Twice in the right leg, once in the left leg and once in the groin and we’ve changed the looks of his groin forever, if you know what I mean,” said Sheriff Judd.
Hours before Neely is accused of setting the north Lakeland roof on fire, authorities said, he set part of the Ritz Ybor on fire, with 1,000 people inside.
Tampa police officers encountered Neely following that fire but he got away.
“I have some really hard questions for Tampa Police Department,” said the north Lakeland woman. “I get it. It’s a dangerous job. But there’s radio and there’s other means at their disposal that they did not do that could have put our sheriff’s department on alert.”
Tampa Police told reporters Monday when officers came across Neely, it was very early in the investigation.
“You don’t know what is going to happen so you have to be cautious and take every precaution that you can and weigh the consequences of your actions,” said Major Eric DeFelice.
The north Lakeland homeowner says Neely knew her 28-year old daughter since high school.
She said, years ago, her daughter left a cross-country trip with friends early due to his behavior.
“[She] called mom and dad, ‘I can’t do this, I’m done, he’s not getting the message,’ came home,” she said.
Then years later, her daughter saw Neely again at a club she worked at in Ybor City, according to the mother.
He was sitting at a table by himself, she said.
“She goes and serves him the bottle. She decides, no. You know what? Uh-huh. Sent a colleague over that he ultimately cussed out and they had to get him out of the club and then they banned him from that point forward,” she said.
Since then, Neely has been off the family’s radar until he allegedly set fire to the roof above the daughter’s bedroom while she was sleeping on Sunday.
“I forgive him, I do. I honest to God do. I think he’s sick. I think he needs help,” she said.
In Polk County, the sheriff announced preliminary charges would include three counts of attempted murder, involving the people inside the north Lakeland home, arson, fire bombing and resisting arrest.
Neely is also expected to face charges in Hillsborough County.