Phone logs cast doubt on arson suspect's alibi

Waldorf man told police he was asleep during fire

December 18, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon and Greg Garland | Stephanie Desmon and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A security guard charged with arson at an upscale Charles County housing development was arrested after cell phone records placed him near the scene - not home in bed as he initially told authorities - when the fires were set, according to court documents released yesterday.

Waldorf resident Aaron L. Speed also gave investigators a tantalizing account of how someone might have sparked the blaze - one that was eerily close to what authorities believe occurred.

He described someone pouring an accelerant and lighting it with a hand-held propane torch. Speed, father of an infant son who died this year, then was asked who might have set the Hunters Brooke subdivision ablaze.

"Someone who works at the site and recently experienced a great loss," he replied, according to the documents.

The 21-year-old guard, who earned $1,000 a month on the job, made his first appearance in federal court in Greenbelt late yesterday afternoon in connection with the Dec. 6 fires that damaged or destroyed 26 houses, most of them under construction, and caused $10 million in damage. Authorities have called it the worst residential arson in Maryland history.

His attorney, federal public defender John Chamble, told the court his client was "imminently releasable," though Speed will be held at least until a bail hearing scheduled for Tuesday.

Based on the magnitude of the fires - set across 10 acres - law enforcement officials have said they believe more than one person set them. Sources say a second arrest could follow soon, and authorities were questioning several more suspects last night, according to a spokesman for the FBI.

Speed was brought to the courtroom dressed in black cargo pants and a black T-shirt depicting a skeletal figure holding a dart board. He was joined in court by several family members, including his wife, Tamara, with whom he has one surviving child and another baby on the way.

"She thinks he's innocent," Crystal Gladkoff, Tamara's sister, said as the two tried to squeeze through a phalanx of television cameras. "Leave her alone."

No one else would comment yesterday, but family members have said they don't think Speed could be involved.

On Thursday, before his arrest, Speed failed a voluntary polygraph test, "including an inquiry as to whether Speed helped to start the Hunters Brooke fires and whether Speed was involved in starting any of the fires," the documents state.

No motive was offered for the crime, but a seven-page affidavit signed by FBI Special Agent G. Joseph Bradley suggested that Speed was unhappy with his employer.

Speed temporarily left his job as a security guard with Security Services of America from August until October "due to SSA's indifference to the death of his infant son. Speed further explained that SSA was not sympathetic to his family's needs during their time of crisis," the affidavit said. His newborn son, a twin, suffered an intestinal illness and died in April of natural causes according to the Charles County sheriff's department.

Investigators found one item in the rubble that matched a detail Speed had offered in his supposedly hypothetical account of how the fires started: A small propane torch.

Authorities said that based on a review of cellular telephone records, Speed was on the phone with a co-worker at 5:05 a.m. instead of asleep in bed as he had claimed. The co-worker, identified only as a "witness," said Speed told him there was a fire at Hunters Brooke and that Speed was going to the scene.

In their conversation, Speed falsely claimed to be part of a fire company that was being dispatched, the documents say. According to the records, the co-worker had been on patrol in the subdivision the night of the fire and initially told investigators he saw nothing suspicious before he left the site at 4:45 a.m. The co-worker later admitted he had actually left at 4 a.m. - an hour before his shift was to end - and had lied to investigators because he didn't want to lose his job for leaving early.

Meanwhile, Speed, who was interviewed several times by law enforcement officials, gave conflicting stories about his whereabouts when the blaze broke out. He eventually told investigators he was at the scene when the fires were started, along with others whom he knew, and said he knew of "the plan by others known to him to set a fire at the location."

Speed told some people he wanted to be a firefighter.

About a month and a half ago, he went on a ride-along with members of the Clinton Volunteer Fire Department, which included going out to a house fire, the company's chief, Robert Small, said yesterday. "When we got back to the fire house, he left and we haven't seen him since," Small said.

The Hunters Brooke development, an enclave of $400,000 to $500,000 homes near Indian Head in increasingly suburban Charles County, had been the focus of a fierce environmental dispute. Activists argued that it would destroy an environmentally sensitive wetland nearby that is known as Araby Bog.

The dispute led some to speculate that the arson could have been set by so-called eco-terrorists, but authorities have said that they have found no evidence to support that theory.

Sun staff writer Gus Sentementes contributed to this article.

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