A 33-year-old pharmacist, described by a neighbor as a "wonderful man," is considered a prime suspect in at least one of the recent arsons in Ellicott City's historic Main Street area after his arrest last night for allegedly setting or trying to set four fires in Baltimore County.
One of those attempts, police said, was at a house across the street from where the suspect lives with his wife and two small children.
Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Robert Thomas said the suspect, James McManus, of the first block of N. Prospect Ave. in Catonsville, was arrested by Baltimore County police after he allegedly ignited one house and attempted to burn two others in the Frederick Road corridor.
Mr. McManus is charged with two counts of attempting to burn, one count of arson, and one count of burglary, and one count of statutory burning tied to a fire at an unoccupied house Feb. 29 in the county.
"Our arson investigators are talking with him and there could be additional things we have to look at," said Baltimore County police spokesman Sgt. Stephen Doanberger.
A Catonsville District Court commissioner ordered Mr. McManus held on $500,000 bail today.
Officials say charges are pending against Mr. McManus in one of the fires in Ellicott City, a minor fire Wednesday at the Antique Depot, 3720 Maryland Ave. just off Main Street. That fire, in an overstuffed antique chair, was extinguished before it spread.
Since Feb. 19, three other arsons have broken out in Ellicott City's historic district, causing extensive damage but no injuries.
An investigator said Mr. McManus also was being questioned by authorities -- including federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents -- about four recent department store fires at The Mall in Columbia that destroyed more than $200,000 worth of merchandise.
Mr. McManus was arrested about 10:30 p.m. after being followed by police surveillance teams for the past 48 hours. He had been 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," said Mr. Thomas.
Last night, Mr. McManus allegedly broke into and set fire to a house at 1409 Frederick Road about 10 p.m. Four students from Thailand were displaced by that blaze, said a neighbor, Timothy Nohe.
Sgt. Doarnberger said Mr. McManus also is a suspect in the attempted burnings of a vacant house at 303 Frederick Road and a home on North Prospect Ave., across the street from where he lives.
Mr. McManus was arrested as he allegedly tried to set the fire at 303 Frederick Road, Mr. Thomas said.
"He was caught in the act," Mr. Thomas said. But he would not disclose how Mr. McManus became a suspect.
Mr. McManus is married and is employed as a pharmacist at People's Drug Stores in Oakland Mills Village Center in Columbia, Mr. Thomas said.
Employees there would not comment today on his arrest, but one of the suspect's customers expressed surprise at his arrest.
"I met him back in 1985 or '86," said Marian Sperling of Columbia. "He was always so helpful and answered questions that I always had. He was a very personable person."
A close neighbor, who requested anonymity, said Mr. McManus moved into there about three years ago. From the start, she said, he appeared to be a friendly man and an accommodating neighbor.
"He was a wonderful man," she said. "If I needed help, he would be happy to lend a hand. This is such a shock. He has a wife, a small baby and a toddler. I can't believe it, I just can't."
Mr. McManus was graduated in March 1983 from the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy in Baltimore, where he had he had a 2.85 grade point average, according to university records.
He also was a 1980 graduate of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where he earned a B.A. in biological sciences.
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 residents and shopkeepers was told that police and fire marshals had stepped up undercover patrols 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 last night's meeting, a porch was set afire in the 8400 block of Main St. Some wood railing and a garden hose were burned before the fire apparently died on its own, said Battalion Chief Donald Howell.
Damage was assessed at $100, but Chief Howell said it could have been much worse because of nearby fuel tanks.
Some residents said they were growing afraid of staying in their homes, noting that many of the buildings in the historic section are old, made of wood and set close together, so a fire could spread easily.