A man who police said pretended to be a firefighter was charged yesterday with burning three vacant East Baltimore rowhouses within an hour, forcing neighboring families to flee their homes before dawn.
It is the second time this month that police arrested suspects in fires that have burned more than 40 empty houses since March 1 in East Baltimore.
Three boys were arrested April 7 and charged with setting fire to a string of North Durham Street rowhouses. Yesterday, police arrested Anthony Stith, 38, who investigators said was partially dressed as a firefighter and was watching one of the fires.
"An officer thought he was behaving a little strange and told us, `You might want to talk to this firefighter,' " said Sgt. Barbara Cannon, who heads the police arson unit.
Stith, who lives in a first-floor apartment in the 1400 block of N. Broadway, a few blocks from the fires, was charged with one count of impersonating a firefighter and three counts of arson. He was awaiting a bail hearing last night.
Police would not say if Stith is a suspect in other fires in East Baltimore during the past two months. The blazes have highlighted difficulties that officials face because of the 10,500 empty rowhouses scattered about the city.
Many of the fires have spread to occupied dwellings, taxed the Fire Department's resources and cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. A homeless woman who had been living in a vacant house died in a fire.
"There is always a cause to be alarmed when we have these kinds of fires, because they could cost lives and property," said Inspector Michael Maybin, a Fire Department spokesman.
The first fire yesterday was reported at 3: 37 a.m. at 1422 N. Gay St. About 4 a.m., a house one block away at 1502 N. Chapel St. was ablaze. At 4: 46 a.m., another fire was reported, at 1807 N. Patterson Park Ave.
The fire on Chapel Street -- where more than half of the 20 rowhouses on the block are boarded -- left a two-story dwelling in ruins and scarred two vacant buildings next door. Graffiti on an inside wall of the scarred structure welcomes visitors to "Freak House."
It is all too common a sight for Margaret Wilkerson, who for 13 years has raised a daughter on North Gay Street. A passing taxi driver banged on her door as smoke poured from every window of the house two doors away.
Her house was spared, but the smell of smoke has ruined her furniture. Wilkerson met with a upholstery-cleaning worker yesterday but told him she has decided to move. "I live in hell," she said.
Wilkerson said she has complained to the city repeatedly about the vacant rowhouse, which she said has never been boarded and is used by drug addicts and vagrants who bring crime and leave trash.
"I want to go someplace where people keep up their homes," she said in tears, adding that the fire yesterday was the second time the vacant house had burned. "Why do anything to keep up your house if they keep burning the whole block?"
Zack Germroth, a spokesman for the city housing authority, said the only complaint about 1422 North Gay St. was about a rat problem, filed March 31. But he said demolition crews are targeting virtually every house on a six-block stretch of Gay Street from East Biddle to East North Avenue.
"Soon it will be very difficult for the arsonists," Germroth said, explaining that 2,000 abandoned homes are being knocked down each year. "There won't be any vacants left."
Police and fire investigators declined yesterday to say how the fires were started.
Sgt. Scott Rowe, a city police spokesman, said the suspect called attention to himself at the Patterson Park fire scene when he started talking to residents who had gathered to watch the blaze.
Rowe said the suspect was dressed in a light-blue shirt similar to what firefighters wear under their heavy, fire-protective jackets. He said a Fire Department patch was on the suspect's sleeve.
Police said the man did not attempt to fight the fire.
Court records show that Stith has been charged with more than two dozen criminal offenses since the mid-1980s, mostly misdemeanors. He has been convicted many times and once spent a year in jail on a bad-check charge.
Pub Date: 4/21/99