Man, 50, is arrested in two-year series of arsons in the D.C. region

Break in case develops from DNA at fire in Va.

April 28, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon and Michael Hoffman | Stephanie Desmon and Michael Hoffman,SUN STAFF

After two years and nearly three dozen fires set in Maryland, Virginia and Washington -- including one in which an elderly woman was killed -- authorities arrested a 50-year-old man from Southeast Washington yesterday in a series of arsons that have frightened people throughout the region since 2003.

Police picked up Thomas A. Sweatt yesterday morning at a Forestville fast-food restaurant after they said they matched his DNA to evidence found at four fire scenes.

Sweatt, a longtime employee at a KFC restaurant not far from many of the fires, is charged with arson and illegal possession of an incendiary device.

"Dozens of families across the region lost their homes, their possessions and their entire sense of security during this stretch of terror," Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams said at an afternoon news conference announcing the arrest. "Nothing can undo their suffering. Today, however, we breathe a sigh of relief.

"In a sense, all of us were victims of the serial arsonist as we remained on edge, not knowing where he'd strike next."

Sweatt appeared before a federal magistrate late yesterday afternoon in Greenbelt. He is charged with six federal counts in Maryland and five in Washington. Authorities said he would be held at least until a bail hearing scheduled for tomorrow morning.

The fires, which included several in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, confounded investigators. An arson task force was set up. Reward money totaling $100,000 was offered. A sketch of a suspect was made public. Then, in December, authorities got a break in the case.

At the scene of a fire set in Arlington County, Va., they found a pair of Marine Corps blue trousers. DNA taken from the waistband was linked to DNA found at other fires. While looking into the origin of the pants, investigators contacted the Navy.

They learned that 30 months earlier there had been unsolved car fires at a Marine barracks in Washington, Malone said. Sweatt had been regarded as acting suspiciously there, and his name was taken down.

A few days after the Arlington fire, evidence found at a fire in Prince George's County, included a black plastic bag that had been part of the makeshift Molotov cocktail used to set the blaze. The lettering read, in part, "MADE IN CHINA FOR CORNELIUS SHOP."

Investigators learned that Cornelius Shopping Bags are used in two locations in the region -- one is a store a block from Sweatt's Lebaum Street home, according to a criminal complaint.

Authorities said Sweatt voluntarily provided a DNA sample this month. Charging documents said the sample matched DNA from a strand of human hair found at a fire in Washington in September 2003, from fabric of a pant leg found at a Silver Spring fire in February 2004, from an athletic sock found at a D.C. fire last September and from the Marine trousers.

"I think it was really excellent police work," said Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey. "That was not a connect-the-dots case. That was an outstanding case of putting a lot of pieces together that didn't necessarily fit."

The fires -- at least 30 of them -- were set in similar ways, authorities said, using homemade bombs. Inside plastic grocery bags were plastic one-gallon jugs filled with gasoline and topped with a piece of cloth used as a wick.

One fire involved a fatality. Lou Edna Jones, 86, was killed in a fire in northeast Washington on June 5, 2003.

A fire at a Silver Spring apartment building in 2004 was set in the building's only stairwell and forced some occupants to jump from second- and third-story windows. Many of the fires were set at night as people slept. Authorities have not suggested a motive.

"He's our guy," said Washington Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. "At this time, we have no evidence suggesting that anyone else is involved."

The Associated Press and Sun staff writer Matthew Dolan contributed to this article.

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