New sketch of arsonist released

35 fires in the D.C. area

reward amount increased

February 19, 2004|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

LANDOVER HILLS - Hoping to generate new leads, a regional task force hunting for a serial arsonist believed responsible for nearly three dozen fires in the Washington area released a new sketch of a man yesterday and increased to $35,000 the reward for information leading to an arrest.

"We want the community to take a second look," said Prince George's County Fire Chief Ronald D. Blackwell, spokesman for the 13-agency task force that includes federal, state and local authorities. "We are going to leave no stone unturned."

The new rendering was drawn by Lois Gibson, a nationally known forensic artist who has sketched for the Houston Police Department and surrounding jurisdictions for 20 years.

Before yesterday, authorities had circulated a computer-generated sketch of a man seen behaving suspiciously near a house in Northeast Washington on Sept. 14. He fled, leaving behind a container of fuel.

During the weekend, Gibson re-interviewed all of the witnesses from September and drew a portrait that refines the shape of the man's head and details his curly, salt-and-pepper hair.

Authorities also classified two recent arsons - one in Fairfax, Va., and another in Silver Spring - as "similar in nature" to the string of suspicious fires under investigation, bringing the total to 35 since last March. Investigators have conclusively linked 15 fires through physical evidence and forensic tests.

The Fairfax blaze was sparked Feb. 6 about 3 p.m. - the first in the string to occur during daylight - at a garden apartment complex, authorities said. No one was injured.

The Silver Spring fire was ignited in a stairwell early Saturday in an apartment building, authorities said. Three people suffered smoke inhalation.

Most of the fires occurred between midnight and 6 a.m., authorities said. And 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. Five fires were set inside apartment buildings.

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

Since they began last March, the arsons have killed an 86-year-old grandmother, injured 10 others and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, authorities said.

Anyone with information can call 301-77-ARSON or e-mail: 77ARSON@co.pg.md.us.

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