POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — Dais Abraham had his pantry stocked. He knew next week was an important one for the community he serves.
“We filled up the place for Thanksgiving,” he said. “It was fully loaded up.”
Abraham runs the New Testament Ministries food pantry on Combee Road in Lakeland.
He said he provides free food to up to 2,000 families a month.
On Wednesday night, he got a call from the owner of a business in the same shopping plaza.
His beloved food pantry was on fire.
“We are not sure of what we’ll do next,” said Abraham.
Polk County deputies said it was the work of an arsonist.
“Come to find out the guy that did it was on candid camera, on my camera,” said Alecia Grimsley, the co-owner of In The Cut Barbershop & Salon.
Grimsley was the one who called Abraham.
When deputies started investigating the fire, Grimsley showed them the video from her security camera.
It shows a man on a bike crouching over a stack of pallets outside the food pantry.
Then the light of a flame becomes visible.
As the man leaves on his bicycle, the video shows, the fire starts to build, eventually engulfing the food pantry.
The suspect is also seen on the video returning to the scene to watch the fire burn.
Deputies located Gorden Nelson, 60, nearby.
“He was also caught with a lighter in his pocket and when you look at the video and what he was wearing when he was caught, exact match,” said Brian Bruchey, public information officer with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
Bruchey said Nelson initially admitted to deputies he started the fire but when asked why he did it, he said he did not start the fire, he only watched it burn.
The damage is estimated to cost $150,000, according to Bruchey.
“Did [Nelson] ever come in and receive food from you?” asked reporter Staci DaSilva.
“Yes he did,” Abraham replied. “I don’t see him doing it because he wanted to hurt me. Probably he just was going through something else and had something else in his mind.”
“I think it’s very horrible. It’s devastating to the fact that that’s the place that’s organized to help people,” said Brenda Speed, the wife of the pastor at Greater Harvest Church, which is next door to the pantry.
The church sustained smoke damage.
In The Cut Barbershop & Salon has smoke damage as well. On Thursday, they were cutting hair outside.
“The barbershop, the store and the pantry—we look out for each other. We support each other. So, it’s a very close knit community,” said Speed.
Nelson was arrested on a charge of first degree arson.
While Abraham is left to pick up the pieces, he said, what really matters isn’t lost at all.
“I feel like even though it’s gone from here or destroyed, it’s not gone from here,” he said, pointing to his heart.
Abraham tells News Channel 8 he is still planning a drive-thru food distribution for Wednesday Nov. 22 from 12 – 2pm outside the food pantry.