Arson suspect pleads guilty in fires at upscale housing development

Former security guard could get 5 to 20 years

June 24, 2005|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,SUN STAFF

A security guard angry at his employer for denying him bereavement leave when his infant son died and envious of the wealthy residents moving into an upscale Charles County housing development pleaded guilty yesterday to conspiring to set fires that resulted in $10 million in damages.

Aaron Lee Speed, 21, of Waldorf pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt to one count of conspiracy to commit arson in a plea agreement that could send him to jail for five to 20 years.

Dressed in all black and with a nearly shaved head, Speed appeared before Judge Roger W. Titus, hands clasped behind his back after his handcuffs were taken off, repeating "yes, sir" and "no, sir" in a monotone as Titus explained the terms of the agreement.

Speed is one of five men, all in their 20s, accused of setting fires Dec. 6 that destroyed or damaged 35 houses at the Hunters Brooke subdivision near Indian Head, where he worked as a security guard. The houses were in various stages of construction and unoccupied, and no one was hurt. It is believed to be the largest residential arson case in the state's history.

Speed had previously pleaded not guilty to dozens of charges that included arson, conspiracy to commit arson and aiding and abetting. He was the second suspect to reach a plea agreement with prosecutors. Jeremy Daniel Parady, 21, of Accokeek pleaded guilty to the same charge in April under a deal that recommended that he serve nearly 10 years in prison. Speed's agreement did not include a recommended sentence.

Both men face sentencing Oct. 18.

Speed's attorney, public defender John C. Chamble, declined to comment until the sentencing.

Parady has said he participated in the arson in part because African-Americans were buying many of the houses, but race was not given as a motive for Speed.

Reading from court documents, Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy B. Atkins said Speed was "angry at his employer, Security Services of America, for denying him bereavement leave after the death of his child," who died of an intestinal illness in April of last year.

"He was also resentful about the wealth of the residents who he believed looked down at him and his own limited economic and educational status," Atkins said. Speed dropped out of high school in his senior year.

Atkins detailed a scheme in which Speed conspired with the other suspects between October and December, during which time they obtained and poured flammable materials into drywall buckets, detergent bottles and other large plastic containers.

Some of the containers were placed on lots when Speed was working at the development as a security guard Dec. 3, while others were placed the night of the fire, according to court documents. Speed and others used flares, matches, lighters and propane torches to spark the fire, the documents said.

Atkins said Speed met with the other suspects to carry out a plan written by Patrick S. Walsh, 20, of Fort Washington, who authorities have said was the ringleader of the group.

Speed provided them with a hand-drawn map of the development and identified occupied houses, which were not targeted, Atkins said. Speed's involvement also included helping to steal ignitable liquids, transporting the liquids to Hunters Brooke, telling the other suspects how and when to access the site and contacting the security guard on duty that night to encourage him to leave.

He also provided a propane torch, radios for communication and latex gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints, Atkins said.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Allen F. Loucks would not comment on whether prosecutors were negotiating with the remaining three defendants, who face trial dates next month and in August.

Speed agreed to help in their prosecution. The degree of his cooperation could affect his sentencing.

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