By MITCHELL ARMENTROUT
Chicago Sun-Times Wire
A man has been charged with setting a garage fire last fall in the Heart of Chicago neighborhood that left 59-year-old Venancio Veracruz Benitez dead.
Thomas Stafford, 23, faces counts of first-degree murder and aggravated arson for the Sept. 16, 2016, blaze in the 2100 block of West 21st Street, according to Chicago Police.
Firefighters found Benitez dead after they extinguished the fire that tore through a garage about 3 a.m., according to fire officials and the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
An autopsy at the time didn’t immediately rule on cause or manner of death, but authorities later determined Benitez died of smoke inhalation, and announced in November that his death had been deemed a homicide.
The fire that killed Benitez was among seven that night in the neighborhood that were intentionally set in garbage cans or near garage walls, authorities said. One extra-alarm fire at 2272 S. Blue Island Ave. spread from the back porch of a home and adjoining building, leaving 39 people homeless.
More than 100 firefighters were called to the series of arsons, sending one to a hospital with minor injuries, authorities said.
Stafford was arrested a month after the fatal fire and charged with possession of a stolen vehicle in an unrelated case, court records show. He was convicted in December, and was serving a three-year sentence at the Lawrence Correctional Center in downstate Sumner when he was charged with murder and arson.
Stafford, of the 1700 block of West 18th Place, remains jin the Cook County Jail ailed on a $750,000 bond, records show. His next court date is March 9.