Grand jury investigates city arsons 2 ex-police officers included in probe of nine incidents

Fires claimed one life

Insurance profit is considered possible motive

November 20, 1996|By Peter Hermann and Kate Shatzkin | Peter Hermann and Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A city police officer resigned yesterday amid a federal grand jury inquiry into a series of arsons in East and Southeast Baltimore -- an investigation that includes his father, who recently retired from the force.

According to law enforcement sources and documents reviewed by The Sun, city police and federal agents have been examining similarities in at least nine arsons and attempted arsons in 1994 and 1995 in which one person died.

The investigators are looking at common ownership links, the timing of insurance policies purchased before the fires and the movement of tenants shortly before the rowhouses burned.

One possible motive, investigators say, was thousands of dollars in insurance on inner-city buildings.

Federal and local law enforcement officials refused to comment on the investigation. But some details of the probe emerged from documents and sources from several agencies who provided information on the condition that they not be named. A lawyer for an owner of two of the burned buildings acknowledged his client was under federal investigation. One of the former officers also acknowledged being under investigation.

Indictments have not been returned in the inquiry, but law enforcement sources say the grand jury is expected to conclude its work soon.

Officer Ian F. Budny, who sources say is being investigated as an alleged lookout in a fire for which he wrote a police report, resigned from the force yesterday after he was stripped of his police powers.

His father, Gary L. Budny, retired in August after 23 years on the force. While investigators have declined to describe Gary Budny's alleged role, a source close to the case said prosecutors would allege he was involved in one fire in an "extremely minor" way.

The fires were at rowhouses on North Rose Street, North Bradford Street and North Linwood Avenue and at a detective agency on East Lombard Street. Each fire was started with gasoline or other flammable material, according to police reports. Most of the fires took place during the summer of 1995.

The fires have added to urban blight in one of the city's roughest neighborhoods. More than a year later, the houses on Rose Street are boarded up and used by drug addicts and vagrants. One of the blazes, at 1311 N. Rose St. in July 1995, killed a heroin addict and father of two who apparently had taken refuge in the house.

M. Stewart Allen, special agent in charge of the Baltimore field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, would confirm only that several east side fires are under investigation. He declined to elaborate.

Gary Budny acknowledged this week that he was under investigation. But he declined to discuss the details, referring questions to his lawyer, Steven Allen, who would not comment.

"I can't say anything. I'm sorry," said Gary Budny, standing on the porch of a duplex he shares with his son on a street in the shadow of Bethlehem Steel. He said the case had forced him into retirement. "This is 23 years of my life. I love my job as much as I love my wife and kids. Everything's gone now."

Budny, 45, had four official commendations in his personnel file when he left, including two Bronze Stars -- both awarded in connection with fires.

Ian Budny's police powers were suspended July 3, and he was assigned to administrative duty in the Eastern District station. Though police officials refuse to say why, sources within the department say the action was taken because Budny was under criminal investigation. He had been a Baltimore police officer for four years when he left the force yesterday afternoon.

"The only thing I want is to be left alone," Ian Budny, 25, said this week. "When everything comes out, you'll find out you don't have what you think you have."

His attorney, Henry L. Belsky, declined to comment on the investigation.

Nick Ricciuti, a claims manager for Joint Insurance Association, a company that provided policies, which were prepared by an independent agent, for the rowhouses, said: "I think it [the investigation] kind of kept growing as they kept looking. The scope of the thing kind of boggled my mind."

Ricciuti would not comment further on the inquiry. He would not say whether the association had paid any claims for the fires.

Joint Insurance Association has no agents of its own, but is set up as a fund to which insurance companies contribute to assure that inner-city properties don't go uninsured, Ricciuti said. The fund has minimal requirements for insuring property -- and even some of those are waived for a short time if a policyholder asks for a temporary binder before the property can be inspected.

That, sources say, appeared to be a pattern in the fires. A temporary binder would be issued for a building, and before it could be inspected, it would burn.

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