Raleigh police said Corey Shaw took a bottle of gasoline and broke it on the backside of the residence on Summerdale Drive. Investigators said Shaw watched the fire and then confessed to authorities when they arrived.
A city utility worker getting off his shift saw the fire and knocked on doors to get everybody out of the building.
Authorities said one unit was destroyed and two were heavily damaged. There were no reported injuries.
"Grow up, please. Grow up," said neighbor Gwen Watson, whose home was damaged. "This is not the answer -- damaging someone's property and putting other peoples' lives in danger."
Watson said she had just bought a new computer for her granddaughter that was damaged. She said she could not believe someone would do such a thing over a relationship and called Shaw's actions careless and immature.
"(He risked his future and four families' lives," Watson said. "It's really irrespsonsible."
Police said Shaw had been charged with damaging some of the 16-year-old's clothes in a previous incident.
"I don't think he ever meant to harm anyone," said attorney Alan Briones, who represented Shaw on past criminal charges. "It may have been something that got out of hand."
Shaw is charged with assault on a female, communicating threats and arson. He is being held on a $250,000 bond. If he makes bond, he will be on house arrest and be ordered to have no contact with his ex-girlfriend and her family. He faces up to 18 years in prison.
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