Winter arsonist is given five years

Man pleads guilty to setting string of fires in Loch Raven area

January 12, 2001|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore County police found the man they suspected had set nearly 20 fires in the Loch Raven area last winter, he was lying on a sofa in the basement of his home with covers drawn over his head.

John Clevenger initially denied any role in the fires that scorched a service station, a half-dozen cars and many piles of trash and recycling materials, police said.

But police say that when they pointed to the fresh mud on the pants and the smoky odor on the jacket near the couch, Clevenger confessed and admitted a fascination with fire.

"It was just the fire thing," Clevenger told police, according to court records.

Clevenger, 22, of Parkville, pleaded guilty in Baltimore County Circuit Court yesterday to first- and second-degree arson and was sentenced to five years in prison for setting a string of fires that had the Loch Raven area on high alert last winter.

"People were being told to put out their trash as late as possible and to watch out for any suspicious activity," said Donna Spicer, executive director of the Loch Raven Community Council.

Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Dever said that over a six-week period in February and March, Clevenger set fire to parked cars, piles of trash, trash receptacles and curbside recycling materials.

Dever said that Clevenger might not have been caught had it not been for a witness who called police when he saw Clevenger acting suspiciously.

Chris Erlandson, 25, a claims adjuster, said yesterday that he was coming out of his house in the 1600 block of Naturo Road about 11 p.m. March 23 when he saw Clevenger walking away from a burning car.

He decided to follow him.

"It was just gut instinct that he was involved," Erlandson said yesterday. "He was walking away at a really brisk pace."

Erlandson called police from his home, then drove around the neighborhood for 15 minutes looking for Clevenger before he saw him kneeling near another burning car.

He chased Clevenger to a house on the 1600 block of Yakona Road, where the suspect lived with his grandmother.

Erlandson again called police - who had dispatched police dogs and helicopters - on his cell phone.

"I'm just glad he's been caught," Erlandson said. "It seemed like he was getting braver and braver."

Police said they could not determine the exact number of fires set by Clevenger. Some victims probably put out fires without calling authorities.

Eight fires were reported Feb. 9, five on March 7 and six on March 23, Dever said.

Dever said that no one was injured and that requests for restitution total only $400.

But, she added, each fire could have caused serious damage and injuries, particularly a fire March 23 behind the Amoco Service station on the 1600 block of E. Joppa Road that spread to an area near the service bays.

"There are many, many victims in these cases," Dever told Judge John G. Turnbull II yesterday. "Police were running from fire to fire to fire."

Turnbull recommended that Clevenger serve his sentence at the Patuxent Institution, a treatment facility for offenders with mental health problems.

Clevenger, a graduate of Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School in Baltimore who worked as a waiter at a Pizza Hut, apologized yesterday.

"I'm sorry for what I've done, your honor," Clevenger said. "I really would like to get some help for my problem before anyone else gets hurt."

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