Arsonist has D.C. area living with fear

Task force suspects, single culprit responsible in 33 blazes over past year

February 18, 2004|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

The ninth arson in Prince George's County was set just after 4 a.m. at a two-story house in Capitol Heights. Someone ignited a blaze on Emily Brown's front porch as she, her son, sister and brother-in-law slept soundly inside.

Brown never heard the smoke detectors. Her sister shook her awake as the fierce flames ate through the front door and kitchen ceiling.

Clad in a nightgown, a barefoot Brown escaped to safety with her relatives - but she remains trapped by her fears.

"I wake up every morning between 4 and 4:30 a.m. It's embedded in my mind," said Brown, 56. "The only time I feel safe is when it's raining."

As a regional task force hunts for a serial arsonist believed responsible for nearly three dozen fires in the Washington area in the past year, residents of neighborhoods indiscriminately terrorized by the blazes are haunted by the thought that they could awake in their beds amid smoke and flames.

If they awake at all. Last March, the arsonist ignited the first in a string of 33 fires that, together, have killed 86-year-old Lou Edna Jones, injured at least seven others and caused an estimated $353,000 in destruction, not including smoke and water damage.

The death in Washington of Jones, known as "Mama Lou," has been ruled a homicide.

The task force has investigated nearly 500 leads and interviewed dozens of victims, but as the one-year anniversary of the first known fire nears, the arsonist remains at large. The panel is expected to deliver an update on its efforts today.

The blazes have occurred mostly along the D.C.-Prince George's County border and are being investigated by the 13-agency task force that includes state, county and district authorities and agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Investigators have conclusively linked 15 fires through physical evidence and forensic tests, and they have classified another 19 - 18 arsons and one attempted arson - as "similar in nature."

The linked arsons are connected by what sparked them: reportedly a container filled with gasolinewith an improvised cloth wick.

All of the fires occurred between midnight and 6 a.m. In most cases, someone - authorities believe it is one man - ignited a flammable fluid outside the front or rear entrances of buildings housing sleeping occupants. Three fires were set inside apartment buildings.

An arson early Saturday at a Silver Spring apartment complex remains under investigation. If linked to the others, the 5 a.m. blaze, in which three people suffered smoke inhalation, would mark the first case in Montgomery County.

"I've been in the fire service for more than 30 years, and I have never seen or been involved in this kind of case," said Prince George's County Fire Chief Ronald D. Blackwell, spokesman for the task force, which is offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. "There has not been a clear pattern as to where he might strike next."

Much like the Washington-area sniper attacks that killed 10 people and wounded three in the fall of 2002, the sporadic, sudden nature of the arsons - 18 in Washington, 14 in Prince George's and one in Alexandria, Va. - has left investigators uncertain of the motive and unable to keep people from harm.

During the height of the fires in June, firefighters extinguished seven arsons in the county - four during the week of June 15, with two occurring back to back June 17.

The 13th fire displaced a family in New Carrollton five days before Christmas.

The 14th blaze was set last month inside a Bladensburg garden apartment building. One person suffered minor smoke inhalation.

Residents of the affected communities interviewed for this article wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. Most have installed motion detectors, exterior lighting and additional smoke detectors.

"We remain cautious," said a District Heights woman whose house was set ablaze June 21 - one day after Emily Brown's - as she and her two children slept inside. "We keep praying that he gets caught or he just stops because there's no apparent reason why he's doing it."

Arson is not an easy crime to solve.

Nationally, about one in six arsons is cleared with arrest - far fewer than the ratio of arrests in murder, rape or robbery cases, according to 2002 FBI statistics, the most recent available.

The state fire marshal's office, which investigates fires in 18 of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions, closed 71 of its 356 arson cases in 2002, meaning one in five was solved.

Part of the difficulty stems from the fact that potential evidence is destroyed by the crime and the suspect often strikes under the cover of darkness.

"That makes it more difficult for investigators because they're having to piece everything together and they're doing it without a lot of the things - like witnesses," said Alan L. Clark of the International Association of Arson Investigators.

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