Officials search for motive in arson

Four suspects arrested in Charles County fires that burned 26 homes

`Every option is still open'

December 20, 2004|By Lynn Anderson and Greg Garland | Lynn Anderson and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Federal investigators are still trying to piece together a motive in the fires that roared through a Charles County housing development in the worst residential arson in state history.

Four men have been arrested -- three of them Saturday -- on federal arson charges in the fires set at Indian Head two weeks ago. While there has been some speculation that the fire-setting was racially motivated, sources close to the investigation said last night that nothing has been ruled out, adding that motivation is often so deeply buried in a suspect's subconscious that it is the last thing to come out.

"We do not know a motive as of right now," said Kelly Long, a spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Baltimore. "Every option is still open."

Three of the suspects, 20-year-olds Jeremy Daniel Parady of Accokeek, Michael McIntosh Everhart of Waldorf and Patrick Stephen Walsh of Fort Washington, are scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt today.

A fourth suspect, Aaron L. Speed, 21, a security guard from Waldorf who worked at the construction site, was arrested Thursday. Speed has said that he was upset about how his employer, Security Services of America, treated him after his infant son died of an intestinal illness earlier this year.

Investigators say Speed gave them a hypothetical account of how the fires might have been set -- using an accelerant and a hand-held propane torch -- that proved close to how they believe the arsonists ignited the homes. A propane torch was discovered among the charred ruins. Speed's cell phone records placed him at the scene of the fires, and not at home, as he initially said, authorities say.

But they are still puzzled over what prompted the arson fires, which injured no one but covered 10 acres of the Hunters Brooke development, damaging or destroying 26 homes under construction and causing $10 million in damage.

"Everything is still being looked at," said Michael Campbell, a spokesman for ATF in Washington.

The Associated Press, quoting an unnamed source, reported that two of the suspects arrested over the weekend allegedly made racial statements. The four suspects are white and most of the families moving into the development, an enclave of $400,000 to $500,000 homes about 35 miles from Washington, are black.

No hate crime evidence

Campbell said that if investigators thought there was evidence of a hate crime, they would have added a charge. "These suspects are being charged with arson, not a hate crime," he said. "Some people are really trying to push the race issue, but it's just not there yet."

A source with first-hand knowledge of the investigation said that even if some of the suspects had made racially insensitive comments during questioning, their motivation for setting the fires might not have been to harm black families. The source said that kind of language may be part of their vernacular.

As the investigation continued, more information about the four suspects emerged, including evidence that at least two of them might have known each other since high school.

Katie O'Malley-Simpson, a spokeswoman for the Charles County school system, confirmed yesterday that Speed and Everhart attended Westlake High School in Waldorf. Speed last attended Westlake as a 10th-grader, from January to June 2001, then withdrew, she said. Everhart also withdrew in the 10th grade, in the spring of 2002.

O'Malley-Simpson said she had no idea whether the two were friends. "I don't even know if they knew each other," she said.

Westlake was Speed's second high school in Waldorf, O'Malley-Simpson said. He had earlier attended Thomas Stone High, from August 1999 until he withdrew in January 2000.

Parady also attended Thomas Stone, but dropped out in April 2002 before completing his senior year, she said.

O'Malley-Simpson said she was unable to confirm a statement by Parady's relatives that Parady and Speed attended Charles County's Samuel A. Mudd Elementary School in Waldorf together.

There is no record of Walsh attending school in Charles County, O'Malley-Simpson said. Authorities gave his address as Fort Washington, in southwestern Prince George's County.

Terry Bray, who lives next door to Parady's parents' house on Oxford Court in Waldorf, said Parady joined the Navy and once helped him build a rock garden in his front yard.

`He seemed ... friendly'

"He seemed pretty friendly to me," Bray said.

Parady worked for the Accokeek Volunteer Fire Department, which responded to the fires, but it is unclear whether he helped fight the blaze. The Web site for the Prince George's County station offers praise to Parady for reviving a woman who apparently had overdosed on drugs Oct. 23.

Neighbors on Harvard Road in Waldorf, where Everhart lives with his parents and siblings in his grandmother's house, described him as a "good kid" and "always nice." They said his family was "going through hell" as a result of the arson arrest and recent death of his grandfather.

"It's a good family," said neighbor Wanda Talbott. "I feel bad for the family."

Sun staff writer Frank D. Roylance contributed to this article.

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