Ghent arson suspect pleads guilty, could face life in prison | #teacher | #children | #kids

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A former teacher accused of lighting a neighbor’s home on fire in Norfolk pleaded guilty to arson on Thursday.

Ryan Lee Elza was arrested after police said he set fire to his neighbor’s house and two cars off of Redgate and Claremont avenues in West Ghent in June 2021.

In November 2021, unsealed court documents revealed that Elza was also facing charges dating back to 2011 in the Larchmont neighborhood. Elza was living with his parents at the time.

Elza said that he was not mentally fit to stand trial at the time of his arrest. A mental health evaluation obtained by 10 On Your Side reveals that Elza suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and anxiety. Elza says his PTSD began when he witnessed a child burn to death in a 2016 car accident.

Elza told his evaluator that he was having homicidal thoughts about his cellmates at Norfolk City Jail. He was then moved to a single-person cell.

In a jailhouse interview on July 9, 2021, Elza told 10 On Your Side that he’s innocent. On the night of the fire he was seen on surveillance footage carrying lighter fluid and charcoal — the same charcoal found under the victim’s car, where the fire started.

Elza said he had a confrontation with the victim earlier.

“I was sitting in a chair on my second floor balcony and he walked across the street and we had words with each other, and it wasn’t friendly,” Elza said of his exchange with his neighbor before the fire.

The Suffolk Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office is prosecuting the case because it was revealed that one of the victims had donated to the Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney’s campaign.

Elza used to be a middle school teacher with Norfolk Public Schools before his arrest. He could face up to life in prison on the arson charge.

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