A 33-year-old pharmacist today is considered a prime suspect in at least one of the recent arson fires in Ellicott City's historic Main Street area after his arrest last night for allegedly setting two fires in neighboring Baltimore County.
According to Deputy State Chief Fire Marshal Robert Thomas, James McManus of Catonsville was arrested by Baltimore County police after purportedly igniting two unoccupied homes along Frederick Road.
Mr. Thomas said charges are pending against Mr. McManus in one of the fires in Ellicott City, a blaze that caused an estimated $500,000 damage last week to a furniture warehouse on Church Road off Main Street.
According to Mr. Thomas, the suspect was arrested about 10:30 p.m. after being followed by police surveillance teams for the past 48 hours. He was considered a "prime suspect" for at least a week, Mr. Thomas said.
"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.
Mr. McManus allegedly set fire to an unoccupied house on Frederick Road at South Rolling Road about 10 p.m. He fled and was caught later setting fire to a vacant house on Frederick Road near Interstate 695: "He was caught in the act," Mr. Thomas said.
Mr. McManus is married and is employed as a pharmacist at Oakland Mills Village Center in Columbia, according to Mr. Thomas.
He would not disclose how Mr. McManus became a suspect.
A police investigator said Mr. McManus was also being questioned by authorities -- including agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms -- about four recent department store fires at the Columbia Mall that destroyed more than $200,000 worth of merchandise.
Earlier last night, more than 150 merchants and residents crowded into Ellicott City's fire station seeking reassurances about the arsons.
The audience of nervous Ellicott City residents and shopkeepers 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.
Only an hour before the meeting, a porch was set afire in the 8400 block of Main St. 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 were nearby.
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 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.
Many store owners said they had already taken it upon themselves to protect their businesses. Some have organized networks to patrol the streets at night, according to Sandy Steinman, who operates an acupuncture office at the 8100 block of Main St.
She said the feeling around town was anxiety, fear and concern. "There's a sick lunatic around," she said. "It's just horrible. The scary thing is you don't know when the next attack is going to be. And fortunately, no one's been hurt yet."
Other store owners said they had taken preventive measures. Ruth Lentz, owner of Ruthie's Rhapsody Antiques in the 8000 block of Main St., said she kept outside lights on at night.
Diana Deutsch, owner of the Noble House in the 8000 block of Main St., said she increased her fire insurance. "Isn't that terrible?" she said. "But I don't know what else I can do."
Fire officials also suggested that store owners check in and around their buildings, securing all doors and crawl spaces before leaving.
Some residents of the historic section felt they were being ignored by fire and police officials, saying they didn't see any extra police in their neighborhood.
Ten-year resident Michael Prietz said he stays up until 2 a.m., sometimes walking the streets to make sure there's no suspicious activity.