The 23-year-old man accused of trying to kill his parents by burning down their Columbia house earlier this week had been a promising science whiz who took college courses during high school and went to the University of Maryland on a full scholarship before leaving without a degree last year.
"I expected him to get a Nobel Prize some day. I really did," said Robert Siskind, a physics teacher at Oakland Mills High School, who once considered himself a mentor for Joseph Michael Lindenberg.
Mr. Lindenberg has told police during interviews that he set fire to his parents' home with the intent to kill them, police charging documents examined yesterday allege.
The young man was ordered yesterday by a Howard District Court judge to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Charged with first-degree arson and two counts of attempted murder, he is being held without bond at the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup pending the outcome of that evaluation.
Police allege that Mr. Lindenberg deliberately started a fire early Wednesday in a room directly beneath his parents' bedroom at their home in the 5200 block of Farm Pond Lane in Oakland Mills, where he also lived.
His father, Norman Lindenberg, 69, and mother, Edna, 63 -- who both were sleeping at the onset of the blaze -- escaped without injury and were staying at their daughter's home in Baltimore yesterday.
"We don't want to comment," Dianna Rothschild, their daughter, said yesterday. "We just want our privacy."
Fire officials say the couple initially feared their son was trapped inside the burning house and were greatly relieved when he returned to the house about 90 minutes after the fire began.
Police believe the alleged arson came after an unspecified argument Mr. Lindenberg had with his parents at their home on Monday -- an argument in which, charging documents allege, he said that he wished they were dead.
"It was a deliberately set fire, not an accidental one," said John Earp, deputy chief state fire marshal. The blaze, which caused $150,000 in damage, was one of 35 arsons recorded this year in Howard County. Deputy Chief Earp said that "revenge and vandalism" account for most of such fires.
Yesterday, an investigator from the state fire marshal's office was still plowing through rubble and taking photos at the boarded-up home in the Thunder Hill section of Oakland Mills.
Meanwhile, high school friends and teachers who knew Mr. Lindenberg yesterday recalled his perfect high-school grade-point average and his apparent genius for the sciences.
"He was probably one of the smartest people I knew in high school," said Michael Wallace, a high school classmate who lives in Columbia and works as an appraiser for an insurance company.
"I always thought he would be someone who would go on to be successful. This is kind of a shock."
Said Mr. Siskind, "I've been teaching 24 years, teaching 140 kids per year, and he stands out in my mind as one of the top three."
Mr. Lindenberg was a member of the Physics Olympics qualifying team during his senior year of high school, "making him one of 20 of the smartest high school physics students in the nation," Mr. Siskind said.
With his 1988 high school graduation, Mr. Lindenberg was named a National Merit Finalist and named a Regents scholar, which gave him a full scholarship to the University of Maryland at College Park.
Both Mr. Siskind and a high school guidance counselor, Marian Christian, said they exchanged letters with Mr. Lindenberg during his first year or two of college, but lost touch by the time he was a junior and know nothing of his recent activities.
College records show Mr. Lindenberg took advanced math classes at Howard Community College and other courses at the University of Maryland's Baltimore County campus during his senior year in high school, said James Pugsley, a University of Maryland electrical engineering professor at College Park.
At College Park, he became an electrical engineering major by his second semester, attended classes through spring 1990, briefly withdrew and then returned until the spring of last year, when he left the university.
"He hasn't been back since," Mr. Pugsley said.
Neighbors contacted yesterday said they did not know what Mr. Lindenberg had been doing since leaving college, although they said they frequently had seen him around his parents' house.
"This is so devastating," said one neighbor, Marlene Peters, who has lived near the Lindenberg family for at least 20 years. "I've never seen them arguing. But you never know what goes on inside."
Questioned by authorities
The young man was first questioned by authorities at the scene of the fire Wednesday, but he was interviewed again after the state fire marshal's initial investigation later in the day.
According to police, as the elder Lindenbergs slept upstairs shortly before 3:30 a.m., a fire was set in a room directly under their bedroom. The couple were awakened by the smell of smoke and a smoke detector and then hurried downstairs and out their front door.
At least 45 fire personnel doused the fire.
Neighbors provided clothing for the couple.
Fire Chaplain George Grimm, who assisted the couple, said they first thought their son was trapped in the burning house and watched apprehensively as firefighters searched inside. But the younger Mr. Lindenberg turned up soon after the fire was snuffed out at 4:58 a.m.
Ms. Lindenberg "was very relieved when I told her Joseph returned and had been accounted for," Chaplain Grimm said.