QUEENS — A note with a coded riddle left by a fire-starting "ninja" near the scene of the latest in a string of Forest Hills fires led investigators to another person who had nothing to do with the blazes, police officials said Wednesday.
Investigators, including a sudoku-loving detective, quickly cracked the encrypted message found under the windshield wiper of a car parked about four blocks away from a home at 108-47 67th Drive that erupted in flames shortly after 11 p.m. last Wednesday, police said.
“Decode this message to find out the person who caused the fire,” the note read.
The note also included several rows consisting of multiple numbers on the left side, as well as a section listing letters in the alphabet, each matched with a number, on the right side.
Investigators figured out that the combinations on the right side referred to specific rows and numbers on the left side, revealing the name of a Forest Hills resident. Detectives tracked down the man but determined he was not the arsonist after questioning.
“Initially we looked at it as a lead,” NYPD's Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said about the note during a press conference Wednesday, adding that at this point police "don’t believe he is involved in the fire at all."
"We believe it was set there by the perpetrator, but the individual identified in that encrypted code is not … We sat down, we talked to this person at great length. He doesn’t appear to have anything to do with it and can account for his time," Boyce said.
The chief also said that numerous police and fire units are currently involved in the investigation.
Police have also increased the reward for information leading to the arrest of the suspect to $12,500, Boyce said.
“What’s interesting here is there’s no accelerant," Boyce said. “It's combustible materials found at the scene.”
Last Friday, police released video footage of the suspected arsonist during the latest blaze. Based on that video, he is described as being 5-foot-6 to 5-foot-7, with a slim build and dressed in a hooded sweatshirt.
The fire at 108-47 67th Drive is one of seven recent suspicious blazes in the neighborhood. Fire marshals and police investigators have determined that six of them were acts of arson. Four were in homes under construction, one was in the former Parkway Hospital building and one in a storage facility.
As first reported by DNAinfo.com New York last week, investigators also have surveillance video showing a man “looking like a ninja,” wearing all black and carrying a backpack, entering a construction site during another fire — on Nov. 17 at 108-49 66th Ave. — that investigators determined was also deliberately set.
The other residential fires that have been ruled arsons broke out on Nov. 8 at 68-60 112th St. and on Nov. 15 at 112-35 69th Road, police said.
In all the arson cases, the suspect entered the sites and ignited flammable combustibles before fleeing on foot, according to the NYPD.
All the suspicious fires broke out at vacant buildings that were being renovated or under construction and most of them were clustered in the area between Jewel and 65th avenues and between Queens Boulevard and the Grand Central Parkway.
No injuries were reported in any of those incidents, although three of the fires spread to nearby homes, displacing 13 people, police said.
Anyone with information is asked to call Crime stoppers at 1-800-577-TIPS (8477). All calls are strictly confidential.