TAMPA — Firefighters responding to a massive pre-dawn fire Wednesday at a home owned by retired tennis star James Blake were shocked to find two bodies. Then another. And another.
The bodies of two adults and two teenagers were found inside the home at 16223 Sierra De Avila in the exclusive Avila neighborhood just north of Tampa. The house, valued by the county property appraiser at nearly $1.6 million, was destroyed in the blaze, which investigators said was intentionally set.
Darrin and Kimberly Campbell and their two teenage children had been renting Blake's house for the past two years, but investigators said they won't know the identities of the bodies found in the fire until preliminary autopsies have been performed. Authorities have not been able to reach the Campbells, said Hillsborough County sheriff's Col. Donna Lusczynski.
A Campbell family spokeswoman late Wednesday said the family would not comment until there was confirmation on the identity of the bodies.
Blake was renting out the home and was out of state when the fire broke out, according to his agent's company.
Firefighters battled the blaze for hours before deputies and officials from the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office were able to get inside. Whoever set the home on fire used an unknown accelerant, Lusczynski said. Various small fireworks also were found throughout the house, she said.
Evidence at the scene indicated something other than the fire killed the victims. Two of the victims had visible upper-body trauma, Lusczynski said.
The two adults were found in a bedroom, and the two teenagers were found in their respective bedrooms.
The investigation and identification process likely will take several days, Lusczynski said. Authorities are exploring all angles of the case, including the possibility of murder-suicide, she said.
“We're continuing to process the scene,” she said. “It will take several days to complete this investigation. We can't come to any conclusions yet.”
Firefighters responded to multiple 911 calls reporting a fire at about 5:45 a.m. One caller reported hearing “popping” noises. In another call, a woman, obviously upset, told the dispatcher she was walking her dog when she saw that the house was engulfed in flames.
“The house just exploded,” she said on the recording.
Neighbor Ken Hoverman said he woke up to a bang that he didn't know where it originated.
“I'm right next door,” Hoverman said. “I heard a big boom. I didn't know what it was. Didn't know immediately where it was.”
He kept hearing multiple noises. He believes there was an explosion on the garage side of the home. The garage is on the north side of the house on the opposite of Hoverman's home.
“It was scary, believe me,” Hoverman said.
He said he saw the father and son at the fitness center a lot. He didn't speak to them, he said. He couldn't recognize the mother and daughter, he said.
He said the houses are separated and he never heard anything from the home.
“Very traumatic,” Hoverman said. “We're all very saddened.”
Firefighters remained on scene throughout the morning, as hot spots continued to flare up. A search warrant was executed at 3 p.m., and sheriff's office investigators entered the burned out structure.
The fire was contained to the residence and did not threaten other residents in the affluent North Tampa gated community, Lusczynski said.
Darrin Campbell is a member of the board of trustees at the school, and his two children are students there. Erma Ruffkess, communications director at Carrollwood Day School, said deputies had been in touch with the school Wednesday.
Several members of the school's board of trustees declined to comment when reached by telephone Wednesday.
Darrin Campbell previously worked at Anchor Glass Containers in Tampa, said a spokeswoman for the company. After that, he went to PODS in Clearwater, where he was the chief operating officer from 2005 until 2008, a PODS company spokesman said.
Deputies were not called to the Avila house during the two years the Campbells lived there, authorities said.
Mary Helen Smith, who lives a few houses away, said helicopters woke her up at about 6:30 a.m.
“I could hear them circling,” she said.
Smith and her daughter walked over to the scene around 8 a.m. and could still see flames toward the back of the house, she said. Her daughter had to park her car outside the gate because authorities weren't allowing anyone to drive into the neighborhood.
She did not know the Campbells, she said.
Blake, 34, was at his home in Connecticut when the early morning fire occurred, said Molly Logan of IMG Worldwide, the tennis player's management company.
Blake, who is married and has a 2-year-old daughter, retired from competitive tennis in 2013 after a 14-year career.
In a 2007 interview with The Tampa Tribune, he said he was attracted to the Tampa Bay area beginning in 1999 as a training ground for his tennis career. Property records show he purchased the 5,856-square-foot house in Avila in 2005, the same year it was built.
Walter Godfrey, who has been president and senior fire and explosion analyst with Fire/Reconstruction Consultants in Cape Canaveral since 1981, said most houses built over the past decade, perhaps longer, have safeguards to prevent fires from spreading throughout the home.
Arson investigators have their work cut out for them in a house of this size, he said, as everything, from building materials to the sizes of rooms and what furnishings are there, must be documented as precisely as possible.
Godfrey, a former deputy fire marshal for the state of Florida, said investigators start wide and narrow down their search for a cause.
“Basically, we all have a systematic way to go through a fire scene,” he said. Outdoor inspections include measurements between windows and doors and indoors, investigators do the same, with an eye toward areas with the most fire damage.
That, he said, is where the fire likely started.
Staff writer Joey Johnston contributed to this report.