Three boys charged with arson in fires in vacant rowhouses

Six east-side houses among 36 set ablaze since start of March

April 08, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A spate of fires -- most set by arsonists, squatters or drug addicts -- has damaged or destroyed 36 vacant rowhouses in East Baltimore since March 1, a nearly one-home-a-day pace that frightens firefighters.

Yesterday, Baltimore police said they had arrested three boys, including an 11-year-old, and charged them with setting fire to a string of houses on North Durham Street, forcing the last remaining resident on the block to flee.

Police said the youngsters are responsible for setting fires that damaged six vacant rowhouses, five on one block that was targeted four separate times.

The 36 fires -- two of which began because of electrical problems -- have caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage, injured firefighters and killed a squatter. But they also highlight a growing problem with the city's 10,500 vacant dwellings, and a desperate race to tear them down.

"We are doing everything we possibly can do to eliminate abandoned properties," said Zack Germroth, a spokesman for the city housing department. "They are havens for crime, and that crime takes form from arson to drug use."

Fire officials warn that even fires in vacant rowhouses pose considerable problems. The fires often spread along the rooftops or through common attics, forcing out neighboring families. Multiple, simultaneous fires tax the department's resources and slow response time to other emergencies.

"People's lives are at risk," said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, Fire Department spokesman. "This is a problem, and it is a very difficult problem for us to attack." There were 535 arsons in Baltimore last year, causing $3.5 million in damage.

Not all the east-side fires since March 1 were deliberately set, investigators said. A number were accidents started by squatters who rigged furnaces to keep warm or drug addicts using crack cocaine pipes. Several fires are under investigation.

The boys arrested Monday and Tuesday allegedly targeted houses near Johns Hopkins Hospital. Four times, police said, fires were set on North Durham Street, which runs between East Madison Street and Ashland Avenue.

A fire set March 2 burned 812, 814 and 816 N. Durham St. On March 29, houses at 808 through 816 were set ablaze. On April 1, 816 was targeted. The next day, a fire broke out in 810.

Investigators said some of the fires were set using gasoline, while other homes caught fire after piles of debris were set ablaze inside.

Police said a man who lived at 802 N. Durham St., the last occupant on a street of 18 boarded-up houses, moved, leaving a desolate, trash-strewn block. Hopkins officials said they are working to buy properties between Ashland Avenue and and East Madison Street, including Durham Street, for a parking lot.

The fires are occurring in neighborhoods struggling to rebuild amid crime and tough economic times. At Durham Street and Ashland Avenue, Inez Hall works to help people find jobs at the One Stop Career Center.

But outside her office is a more troubling reality: crowded street corners and police officers pressing suspected drug dealers up against a wall of a vacant rowhouse.

The children charged with arson, police said, were picked up on the streets in the neighborhood.

"They were bored, they cut school and they were looking for something to do," said Detective Edward M. Vogt of the Police Department's arson unit.

Police became suspicious after five North Durham Street houses burned March 29, less than a month after the fires set in the same houses March 2. They said they were convinced of a connection April 1, when a fire broke out at 1910 E. Madison St. at 6: 38 a.m., followed by a fire around the corner on Durham Street six minutes later.

Vogt said investigators chatted with children who had gathered at the fire scenes. He said firefighters soon learned the names of three boys, ages 11, 14 and 16.

Police arrested the three Monday and Tuesday. Each was charged as a juvenile with multiple counts of arson and has been released to a parent's custody. A fourth boy is being sought.

Some days, three fires were set in vacant houses on the same day in the same neighborhood. The fires not only endanger lives and property, they are expensive. Each fire call, or alarm, requires sending five engines, two trucks and an ambulance, and costs taxpayers $2,791 per hour spent at the scene, according to department reports.

The Fire Department received a $15,000 federal grant to help educate people about arson, but it was only enough to create reward posters hung at fire scenes where arsons are suspected, Torres said.

Pub Date: 4/08/99

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