A fire that investigators said was set early yesterday in a spat involving a tenant of a Catonsville apartment building killed a 50-year-old autistic man who was not involved in the argument.
The fire also sent the man's 72-year-old, cancer-stricken mother to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. First-degree murder and arson charges were placed against a 22-year-old unemployed carpenter.
The dead man, Vaughn Crenning, led a simple life, acquaintances said, undaunted by the autism that often made him seem childlike. He liked long walks, hated doing laundry, and his mother was his best friend.
Mr. Crenning died near his mother in their smoke-filled bedroom in the first block of North Rolling Road in Catonsville.
Baltimore County police said Mr. Crenning and his mother, Ruth L. Westervelt, who remained hospitalized in critical but stable condition last night, were victims of a fire that was set at 4:30 a.m. in their red-shingled, three-story apartment house.
In fact, say friends, they had never met the second-floor tenant whose running feud with a 22-year-old Catonsville man allegedly sparked a deadly fit of retaliation. Seven others in the house escaped.
County police charged Andreas Klepp-Egge, of the 200 block of North Rolling Road, with arson and first-degree murder in connection with the fire.
He remained jailed at the Woodlawn precinct last night awaiting a bail review.
Mr. Klepp-Egge threatened the second-floor residents after they refused to let him inside to settle a dispute with a tenant, Gregg Holman, 21, police said. Mr. Klepp-Egge claimed Mr. Holman had broken a window at his house to get even for $240 stolen earlier, witnesses told police.
"He was all drunked up, and he said he was going to kill Gregg and all of us," said Stacy Crews, 18, who shared the second-floor apartment with Mr. Holman and two other young women. Miss Crews said that Mr. Klepp-Egge fled after she reported him to the police.
As Mr. Klepp-Egge ran away, she said she heard him yell: "I'll be back."
Police said they found Mr. Klepp-Egge asleep in a relative's home two blocks from the burning house and later charged him with the incident.
Police believe someone broke into the house and used a lighter to ignite a love seat in the basement under the first-floor apartment where Mr. Crenning and his mother had lived since the early 1960s.
The flames spread quickly, funneling between the walls and climbing three stories until they filled the house with thick, smothering, black smoke.
Miss Crews said she could hear Mrs. Westervelt's screams as Miss Crews yelled for help from a window.
But her calls were answered with the laughter and taunts of two men who watched the flames as she and five others scrambled onto a roof at the front of the house, she said. All were treated at a hospital for smoke inhalation and released.
Firefighters rescued the residents, including a 7-year-old boy who broke a leg climbing down a ladder.
They also saved Mrs. Westervelt, who had been bedridden with cancer for more than a year.
However, rescuers could not save Mr. Crenning, who died of smoke inhalation as he lay in a bed beside his mother's. The house was damaged so badly by the fire that its tenants sought shelter last night with family and friends.
Mrs. Westervelt, a former schoolteacher, and her son had been inseparable. They traveling five times around the world to places like Bangkok, Rotterdam, Cuba and throughout Europe.
But the pair had become reclusive in the six years since Mrs. Westervelt's husband, Ralph, died, neighbors said.
"They seemed to just disappear from the picture," said Lindsay Crawford, 82, a next-door neighbor.
"When [Mrs. Westervelt's] health declined, she became less active, and the only time you ever saw [the son] was when he took his long walks. Otherwise you'd hardly ever see him," the neighbor said.
Mrs. Westervelt and her son led a quiet, predictable life, said Joe Mansfield, a friend who helped manage their finances, rented their apartments and brought them meals three times a week.
"She was stern and feisty, but she was a good woman," Mr. Mansfield said.
"She loved her morning Sun newspaper and her three packs of cigarettes a day, even though she had cancer. I can't imagine what it must have been like for a woman raising a son in his condition for all those years, because he couldn't take care of himself," Mr. Mansfield said.
"He'd spend all day just writing down numbers. He'd tell you he had 79 million in the bank and that he had just spent a million dollars for a hamburger. The most he ever did was walk out on his grounds in his undertrunks," Mr. Mansfield said.
"He was never malicious or anything," said Carol Keeney, who grew up across the street from the mother and son.
K? "Everybody accepted him as just being different," she said.