Pharmacist is charged in 6 area arsons He is suspected of setting 14 others

March 14, 1992|By Michael James, Erik Nelson and Lan Nguyen | Michael James, Erik Nelson and Lan Nguyen,Staff Writers

A Howard County pharmacist has been charged with setting six blazes and is being investigated for 14 others in Baltimore and Howard counties, authorities said.

The suspect, James Francis McManus, 33, of the first block of N. Prospect Ave. in Catonsville, has confessed to setting three fires in Baltimore County, court records show.

Mr. McManus has worked as a pharmacist at Peoples Drug Store in the Oakland Mills Village Center for nearly 10 years. He is being questioned about fires in the immediate area of his home, his job and historic Main Street in Ellicott City.

None of the fires -- which range from the destruction of a building to torching a teddy bear -- resulted in injuries. Most caused only minor damage, although the news of a suspected arsonist in recent weeks had caused a wave of public outcry by merchants and residents. Eleven fires believed to be set by a firebug had been reported in the first two weeks of March.

Mr. McManus, who police said has no criminal history, appeared yesterday before Baltimore County District Judge John C. Coolahan, who ordered his bail reduced from $500,000 to $50,000. The reduction was in consideration of Mr. McManus' lifelong residence in Maryland and his wife and two children, Judge Coolahan said.

The gaunt, blond-haired defendant told the judge he had lived in Catonsville for about four years and had worked for almost 10 years at the drug store. He is now being held at the Baltimore County Detention Center in Towson.

Mr. McManus was arrested Thursday night by police and fire investigators who had a 24-hour watch on him. He became a suspect in fires at Columbia Mall on March 3 when a video camera at the Sears store showed that he was in the men's department shortly before a small fire was found.

Two weeks earlier, another fire at the same mall caused an estimated $200,000 in damage. That blaze appeared similar to a fire set Feb. 22 at the Hecht's store in the Security Square Mall, investigators said.

Five buildings in the historic district of Ellicott City had also been struck by an apparent arsonist. The warehouse of one of the businesses,Taylor's Furniture, was destroyed. Also, a business and two Dumpsters were set on fire two weeks ago near where Mr. McManus works in the Oakland Mills Village Center, investigators said.

As a result of the apparent connection between the fires, police and fire officials set up a surveillance operation that followed Mr. McManus to and from his home and job.

On Wednesday, a police officer assigned to trail Mr. McManus saw him park his 1986 red Pontiac Fiero outside the Antique Depot in the Main Street area of Ellicott City. Minutes later, someone set a sofa on fire in the store, police said.

Surveillance continued Thursday as the officers followed Mr. McManus -- who had the day off -- to the Owings Mills Mall, where he went shopping with his wife, investigators said.

After dropping off his wife, the officers saw him allegedly set fire to an abandoned house in the 1400 block of Frederick Road, court records said. He was arrested at the scene.

The state fire marshal's office charged Mr. McManus yesterday with two counts of arson and two counts of attempted arson for the Sears fire and the Antique Depot blaze.

In Baltimore County, he is also charged with one count each of arson and burglary for the Frederick Road fire, and with two counts of statutory burning for setting fire to vacant houses on Feb. 29 and earlier in the day Thursday.

He was also charged with one count of attempted burning for an abandoned house fire set Thursday in the 300 block of Frederick Road.

In the mall cases and at the Main Street shops, someone apparently used a butane trigger lighter to set afire furniture, drapery and even a teddy bear, found burned on Wednesday at the Card-O-Rama shop at the Columbia Mall, Howard County police said.

According to Howard County court records, a Sears security officer spied Mr. McManus acting suspiciously on March 3 at the store's drapery section. He watched Mr. McManus via video camera for about three minutes, then watched him leave, the court records said.

About a minute later, the security officer received a call that a man's bathrobe had caught on fire.

The court records also said that Mr. McManus was seen walking in front of the Antique Depot the day before the fire, and police say he admitted that he was looking for a building to set on fire. He also confessed to the Frederick Road fires, court records said.

Oakland Mills Liquor store owner Fred Keepers said Mr. McManus used to go to his store for soft drinks and lottery tickets.

"It's just a shock to everybody," he said. "He was always very helpful, and as far as we know, a good family man. He was a really quiet guy."

Mr. McManus graduated with a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy in 1983 with a 2.85 GPA. He previously went to the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where he majored in biological sciences.

A 43-year-old Columbia woman who's been getting prescriptions filled by Mr. McManus for years said Mr. McManus just didn't seem to be the type. "I'm just shocked," she said. "He's one of the kindest, concerned pharmacists who follows up on every prescription. He was a pharmacist who cared more about people than anybody else."

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