Planning, execution of house fires recounted

Prosecution's key witness testifies he was coaxed into being gang's driver on `little mission' in Charles County

August 27, 2005|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

Armed with a gun shoved in his waistband, Patrick S. Walsh packed his truck with flares and accelerant before he rode into a Charles County subdivision and helped commit one of the largest residential arsons in state history, the prosecution's star witness testified yesterday.

Jeremy D. Parady, a co-defendant turned cooperative witness, offered the most damaging evidence about that night thus far in the trial against Walsh, who has pleaded not guilty to setting fire to the Hunters Brooke community in Indian Head on Dec. 6.

But Parady, 21, readily admitted on the witness stand in U.S. District Court in Baltimore that he had lied to federal authorities and the presiding judge in the case for months before he changed his story and pleaded guilty. Moments before he took the stand yesterday, he struck a new deal with prosecutors, who agreed to recommend a reduced prison sentence in exchange for his testimony.

Jurors will now have to decide what weight to give testimony from the only eyewitness to the crime to appear at the trial. Prosecutors chose not to call another eyewitness who pleaded guilty.

Jurors must also balance Parady's account against the testimony of Michael Gilbert, a prosecution witness who recanted his earlier story that Walsh had admitted a role in the arsons. Walsh's defense attorney told jurors in opening statements that none of the forensic evidence recovered from the scene links his client to the arsons.

Authorities initially charged six men, ages 20 to 22, with the arson. They later dropped their case against Gilbert. Walsh, 21, of Fort Washington is the first to go on trial.

Prosecutors had earlier agreed to a sentence for Parady of about 10 years in prison. It was unclear exactly how much time would be shaved off that prison term under the new agreement because the sentence length remains up to the judge.

Yesterday, Parady told jurors that he was taking the stand against Walsh because it was the right thing to do.

"I was terrified," he said, explaining why he lied during his interrogation by federal agents in the weeks after the arsons. "I figured I should try to lie my way out of it.

Prosecutors expect to present their last witnesses Tuesday when the trial - which has now concluded its second week - resumes.

Yesterday, speaking quickly, Parady recalled details of his first encounters with Walsh and others involved in the blaze that damaged or destroyed 35 homes and caused an estimated $10 million in damage in the upscale subdivision.

They knew each another from their younger days hanging out at a local Christian drop-in center called My Brother's Place. They grew apart as they got older, but most later reconciled, he said.

The erstwhile friends hung out at a Denny's in Waldorf. Though witnesses said that Walsh was attempting to form a gang called the Unseen or The Family, Parady testified he himself never joined up.

Instead, he said, he tried to get out of the area by enlisting in the Navy in October. His naval career was short-lived; he was discharged for problems with his knee and for failing to adapt to military life, according to his testimony.

Working as a residential security alarm installer and a volunteer firefighter, Parady told jurors, he talked regularly with Aaron Speed, who like Parady pleaded guilty to the arson earlier this year.

According to Parady, it was Speed who pulled him into the arson plot, teasing him by asking him if he had "rust on his elbow" or had lost his chops for high-speed driving. If not, Speed told Parady, he needed him as a driver for a "little mission" his group was planning. A series of online chats and get-togethers at Denny's gave Parady a chance to review Speed's plans for the arsons at Hunters Brooke.

Parady testified that he saw his wheelman role in the crime as a way to "end the beef" or disputes he had had with Speed, Walsh and others whom he accused of harassment.

The night before the arsons, Parady said on the stand, he consumed two six-packs of beer and downed at least four shots of rum. He dressed in black, wearing firefighter boots and carrying latex gloves. Speed told the group to leave their cell phones at home so they couldn't be linked to the arson site, Parady said.

Parady testified that Walsh approached him and brandished a handgun to ensure he was still going to serve as the group's driver. "You're not going to back out of this," Walsh told Parady, according to his court testimony yesterday.

As Parady drove Walsh in the lead car, they carried a portable scanner to listen for police and fire activity. Parady said they reached Hunters Brooke sometime in the middle of the night, but he never left the car. Instead, he listened to the scanner and moved the car as Speed, Walsh and others went from house to house, pouring accelerant and setting the homes ablaze.

The young men regrouped at a local Wendy's, according to Parady, where Walsh cursed when he thought that they had left a blowtorch and flashlight behind at the scene of the fires.

But over and over again, under cross-examination, Parady was forced to admit that he gave false information to investigators about his own role in the arson, even going as far as to implicate friends who he acknowledged yesterday had nothing to do with the blaze.

Defense attorney William B. Purpura Jr. hammered Parady, first focusing on the plea deal he reached with prosecutors. He read back parts of the plea agreement, in which Parady admitted that he and the others targeted Hunters Brooke in part because the new homeowners were predominantly black.

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