Arson deaths high in Baltimore Co.

February 03, 1993|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Staff Writer

Homicide by arson set an unwelcome record in Baltimore County last year, with five people dying in fires that were deliberately set, police and fire officials said.

While the overall number of people who died in fires remained at 10, as in 1991, Battalion Chief Michael T. Whittaker said, "As far as I can determine, it is the highest number of arson deaths ever for the county."

"It's very high, very unusual," Sgt. Stephen R. Doarnberger, a county police spokesman, agreed.

Of the 10 deaths in 1991, only one was from arson. But 1992 saw:

*The Jan. 5 death of a 72-year-old woman, Ruth L. Westervelt, who lingered after a Thanksgiving 1991 blaze at her Catonsville home. Her 52-year-old autistic son died in the fire -- and his was 1991's only arson death.

*A May 24 fire in the 1400 block of E. Hadwick Drive, Essex, that killed Mary Lee Gericke, 30, and her 8-year-old daughter, Victoria M. Gericke, in their apartment. The case remains unsolved.

*A fire Aug. 4 in the 2500 block of Wentworth Road in Parkville that killed 33-year-old Kathleen Marie McCoy. Prosecutors are seeking a sentence of life without parole for Paul K. McInturff, 45, who lived in an apartment below hers, in a trial scheduled for Feb. 16.

*The death of 69-year-old Legrant Edwards Dixon from internal injuries sustained when he jumped from his balcony in the 1600 block of Four Georges Court in Dundalk to escape a deliberately set fire Nov. 15. His death, also ruled a homicide, is listed as unsolved.

"Somebody jumping from a building would be a homicide, if the fire was deliberately set," Chief Whittaker noted.

In Baltimore City, there were 42 fire deaths in the fiscal year that ended in July 1992, and five were the result of arson, according to city firefighter Carl Cracke.

Fire and police investigators work jointly on arson cases, seeking to locate the point of origin and the cause of ignition, collecting evidence and turning a case over to the state's attorney's office if a suspect if found.

"Arson is one of the hardest crimes to prove," the chief said.

Last week, a Harford jury acquitted a 23-year-old man of murder charges and arson in the 1991 fire at Mrs. Westervelt's home that killed her and her son, Vaughn Crenning.

Prosecutors tried to prove that Andreas Klepp-Egge set the fire in a dispute with a tenant of one of the apartments above the Westervelts, in the first block of N. Rolling Road. They said they sought the death penalty because two people died and because the deaths occurred in the course of another crime. Mr. Klepp-Egge was jailed for almost 15 months, and the trial was moved from Baltimore County to Harford County at the defense request.

His attorneys successfully argued that at least two other people had the opportunity and a motive to set the fire, and jurors said after their verdict last week that there wasn't enough conclusive evidence against Mr. Klepp-Egge.

"It was an all-or-nothing type of verdict sheet," said Assistant State's Attorney Frank C. Meyer Jr. "This is why we have courts, and why we have juries."

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