Arson suspect is under arrest Man faces probe in Columbia Mall, Ellicott City fires

March 13, 1992|By Michael James and Lan Nguyen | Michael James and Lan Nguyen,Staff Writers

A team of police and fire investigators said they arrested a suspect as he was setting a fire last night near Ellicott City and linked him to the recent wave of arson in the historic Main Street area of the town.

The arrest was made at 10:30 p.m., less than two hours after more than 150 merchants and residents crowded into Ellicott City's fire station to hear advice on how to protect themselves.

A state fire marshal spokesman, Robert B. Thomas Jr., said the suspect, whose name was not released, was being interviewed this morning about his suspected role in the Main Street area fires. Six have been reported in the past month.

A police investigator said that the man was also being questionedabout four recent fires at the Columbia Mall that destroyed more than $200,000 worth of merchandise.

Mr. Thomas said the suspect was apprehended by a surveillance team consisting of both Howard County and Baltimore County police officers and fire marshals as he tried to set a fire at an abandoned house in the 1400 block of Frederick Road.

The house is located near the Howard-Baltimore county line on the edge of Ellicott City.

"We have had a surveillance operation going on for several nights in the Main Street area, and he [the suspect] had been identified by investigators several days ago," Mr. Thomas said.

The man was being questioned by Baltimore County police and other investigators, including agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Mr. Thomas said.

Police investigators said they expected to charge the man with attempted arson in connection with last night's Frederick Road incident. Other charges were also pending.

Earlier last night, more than 150 merchants and residents crowded into Ellicott City's fire station seeking reassurances about the arsons.

The audience was told that undercover patrols had been stepped up and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had joined the investigation.

"We need the federal resources to go beyond what we can do in this town," State Fire Marshal Rocco J. Gabriele told the audience.

In the past month, five fires have occurred within a six-block area in the historic district of Ellicott City. Four of the five fires were established as arson, but the fifth -- at a furniture warehouse -- burned so thoroughly that state fire officials say they may never be able to determine its cause.

Only an hour before the meeting, a porch was set afire in the 8400 block of Main Street. It destroyed some wood railing and a garden hose and apparently died on its own, said Battalion Chief Donald Howell. While damage was assessed at only $100, Chief Howell said it could have been much worse because fuel tanks werenearby.

Some residents at the meeting said they were growing afraid of staying in their homes, noting that many of the buildings in the historic section are not only old but made of wood and set close together, so that a fire could spread easily.

One of the arsons was reported Wednesday afternoon at the Antique Depot in the 3700 block of Maryland Ave., across from the B&O Railroad Museum. Chief Howell said an overstuffed chair on the antique store's second level was set ablaze; damage from that, too, was limited to an estimated $100.

Fire and police officials at last night's meeting told rattled shopkeepers and residents that they were working as hard as they could to catch a suspect but needed help. They asked shopkeepers to keep outside lights on at night and to install sprinkler systems in their stores.

"Firefighters have realized they need things to help them," Mr. Gabriele said. "The thing that helps them is a sprinkler system."

He asked people to call the arson hot line (1-800-492-7529) to report any suspicious activities.

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