Charles Co. arson trial opens with testimony

Neighbor describes waking up to a subdivision set ablaze

August 18, 2005|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

Hours before first light, Terri Rookard was awakened by her 15-year-old son to see a fire so bright that the burning glow could be spotted from miles away.

The State Department employee who had moved into her new Charles County home only days before recalled in federal court yesterday how she quickly scooped up her three children one by one. Looking outside her bedroom window, she saw houses, maybe 20, engulfed in flames.

"There was fire everywhere," said Rookard, whose own home escaped the blaze. Rookard's testimony started the prosecution's case against Patrick S. Walsh, who is on trial on charges of engineering the state's largest residential arson.

The trial opened in a packed U.S. District courtroom in Baltimore yesterday, moved from Greenbelt after substantial publicity in the Washington area about the fires that ravaged the upscale Hunters Brooke community in Indian Head in December. Two of Walsh's co-defendants -- Aaron Speed and Jeremy Parady -- have pleaded guilty and might testify against him.

Prosecutors believe Walsh was motivated by an obsession with lighting fires and a desire to gain fame for his group of childhood friends and racing-car enthusiasts.

In court yesterday, they said Walsh, 21, plotted to burn down large sections of a housing development so new that most of the 35 houses damaged or destroyed had never been occupied.

Federal investigators said Walsh and four other suspects had advance planning, arriving the Friday before the Monday fire to drop off propane torches, matches, flares and flammable liquids.

In the early morning of Dec. 6, authorities say, the group drove along the wooded streets of Hunters Brooke, checking to make sure the security guard had left for the night before they kicked in doors and spread flammable liquid in the front halls and set them ablaze.

The first of the 200 firefighters who responded to the blaze had no idea what to expect in a community still under development.

"I could see at least four homes on fire," Brian Phillips, a volunteer firefighter in Maryland and a full-time one in Washington, said in court yesterday.

To battle the blaze, which was in largely vacant homes in various stages of construction, firefighters fought the fires from the outside. With more than 60 fire companies on the scene, Phillips described the effort as "very chaotic," comparing it only to the frenzy that he had seen when he responded to the attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

When the blazes died down about 3 p.m., about 12 hours after they had started, 10 homes had been destroyed and another 15 were damaged, officials said. Some homes were not burned, but investigators said they been doused with the flammable liquid.

Damage has been estimated at $10 million.

Prosecutors said the fires were part of a quest by Walsh to gain personal acclaim and respect for his group.

"What he needed was to get the gang known," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Donna Sanger, adding that Walsh's group was known as the Unseen Mafia, the Unseen or the Family. "He hoped to make a name for himself and the Family."

Walsh watched the testimony intently yesterday. He occasionally took notes and chatted with his attorneys.

In his opening statement, defense lawyer William B. Purpura Jr. told jurors that his client has always maintained his innocence, never confessing to the crime.

Arson investigators found no forensic evidence at the Hunters Brooke housing development to link Walsh to the fires according to Purpura.

"You've all watched CSI," Purpura told jurors. "You don't solve a crime in an hour. But [forensic evidence] does help."

He criticized prosecutors, who might call Walsh's co-defendants to testify against him.

"It's going to take considerable moxie for the government to call Aaron Speed," Purpura said. Of Parady, Purpura said: "He's lied under oath. ... He lied before this very judge."

Using tapes from surveillance video cameras and records from cell phone company and an Internet service provider, Purpura said he would be able to prove that Walsh visited a local Denny's in Waldorf, called friends from locations far from Hunters Brooke and was online on his home computer when the fires ignited.

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