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Ocean Drive arsonists caught on tourist's 'Candid Camera'

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of January 10, 2013)

Two men, accused of setting a workman’s truck on fire in a dispute over it being parked on a vacant Ocean Drive lot, didn’t realize they were on one tourist’s version of “Candid Camera.” Not only did the out-of-state tourist film the arson, but she provided Vero Beach police with the license plate of the Nissan the pair used to leave the scene.

The tourist was visiting a friend’s Ocean Drive home and was on an upper-story balcony of the house when they saw the two suspects break the truck’s windows and set it ablaze.

Later than night, police arrested the two men while they were poolside at Costa d’Este.

For Chase Austin, the truck’s owner, the 1992 maroon Chevy pickup may not have been the nicest, the flashiest, or even the hippest vehicle, but the truck he saved for more than a year to buy for $2,000 was a step up from the motor scooter he previously used for transportation.

“My truck was not the best looking, but it was mine and I liked it,” the 22-year-old Austin said.  “It’s totaled,” said Austin, who did not have insurance to pay for a replacement vehicle.

James Clemens, 54, of Illinois, and Clemens’ nephew John Kully, 30, of Sebastian, were arrested on felony charges they intentionally set Austin’s truck on fire because he had parked it on a lot owned by Clemens’ 93-year-old mother, Adele. They both are free from jail on $50,000 bond.

James Clemens’ son, Ryan, who was also staying at Costa d’Este which is down the street from his grandmother’s Ocean Drive house, told police his father and cousin admitted setting fire to the truck during dinner, explaining they did so because of an on-going parking dispute.

That’s news to Austin, who said he had never been told to not park on the empty land – a lot he said he’s been taking care of by picking up branches and cutting the grass.

Austin said he parked in the lot so he could have easy access to a neighboring pool and yard where he serves as a caretaker. “I think this all could have been resolved if they would have just left a note on my truck,” he said. “They didn’t have to burn my truck down.”

Shortly after buying the Chevy, Austin was introduced to Kevin Howell, a part-time islander, private developer and preacher.

Howell gave him a job as a caretaker for his various island properties and a place to stay. On weekends, Austin typically headed to the Tampa area – where Howell also lives – to attend Howell’s religious services, see his girlfriend and take care of the Howell’s West Coast properties.

When Howell was building the six-bedroom, eight-bathroom Mediterranean-inspired ocean-front estate just one house from the board walk at Conn Beach, Howell said Adele Clemens allowed him and the construction crew to use the lot between their two homes so that the crews didn’t clog up Ocean Drive any more than necessary. Howell’s beachfront estate is on the market for $5.995 million.

Howell had been hoping to buy Clemens’ next door lot – which had been left vacant since Hurricanes Jeanne and Frances in 2004 – and ultimately Clemens beachfront home.  He said the option he had to buy the properties from Clemens expired about six months ago. “I don’t have the money to buy the property,” he said. “It’s a wonderful piece of property.”

Still, Austin and another worker at Howell’s home, have used the vacant lot for over a year, just as the workers did before the house was finished about a year ago.

Howell said his wife routinely brings baked good to Adele Clemens.

“She’s a sweet lady, she’s just as sweet as can be,” said Howell of his neighbor. “I really don’t think there are any hard feelings between us, I just wouldn’t imagine that.  Frankly, it’s pretty unbelievable that someone would torch this poor kid’s car.”