Man convicted in fires in Charles County subdivision

September 03, 2005|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

A federal jury convicted a 21-year-old man yesterday for helping set a roaring blaze that engulfed a predominantly black community in Southern Maryland last year and raised the specter of racism as a motive behind one of the largest residential arsons in state history.

Jurors in U.S. District Court in Baltimore returned a guilty verdict on all 36 counts against Patrick S. Walsh, 21, of Fort Washington. Walsh's family convulsed into tears as the jury foreman announced the decision. They were visibly angered by the verdict and the intense media attention to the case; they declined to comment.

The seven men and five women of the jury filed out of the courthouse without talking about their seven hours of deliberations over two days that ended about 11 a.m. yesterday. The eyes of one of the women on the jury welled up as each of the guilty counts, including ones for arson and criminal conspiracy, was read aloud.

Later, one juror described their talks as difficult but carefully considered and without acrimony.

No one motive can explain why arsonists set fire to the Hunters Brooke development, according to authorities. While the arrival of new minority residents in Charles County fueled racist anger for some suspects, including Walsh, he seemed obsessed with igniting a spectacular fire to show off the power of his gang and to attract members, witnesses and prosecutors said at the trial.

U.S. District Court Judge Roger W. Titus tentatively set Walsh's sentencing for Dec. 5. He could receive five to 20 years on each of the 36 counts.

Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein issued a statement commending the jurors, saying in part, "Although the harm suffered by the victims can not be erased, it is important that the perpetrators be held accountable."

The presiding judge had moved the case from Greenbelt to Baltimore because defense attorneys voiced concerns about finding an impartial jury in suburban Washington.

The trial offered prosecutors their first chance to reveal findings from an extensive, multi-agency task force that investigated the Dec. 6 fires that leveled a large portion of the Hunters Brooke subdivision in Charles County and caused an estimated $10 million in damage.

Five defendants, including Walsh, faced charges of arson and criminal conspiracy in connection with a blaze that damaged or destroyed more than two dozen unoccupied homes. Co-defendants Aaron Speed and Jeremy Parady have pleaded guilty and are scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 18. A joint trial for Roy "Brian" McCann and Michael M. Everhart has been set for February.

Terri Rookard, who testified about her family's escape from the fires, expressed relief at the verdict, saying the once-charred community was rebounding.

"We were a little concerned because prosecutors said at first that they weren't sure if they had enough evidence to go forward," Rookard said in a telephone interview.

Defense attorney William B. Purpura declined to comment about whether he would appeal, but he renewed his frustration that the judge had allowed jurors to hear evidence of other fires Walsh is alleged to have set that had nothing to do with Hunters Brooke.

The case was challenging for prosecutors, who lacked a confession from the suspect and forensic evidence linking him to the crime.

But assistant U.S. Attorneys Donna Sanger and Tim Atkins offered evidence to show how the 35 homes were burned, damaged or targeted for arson. Witnesses described Walsh as the plot's ringleader, hoping the enormous fires would gain notoriety for his group of childhood friends known as The Family.

According to testimony, the group, described by prosecutors as a gang, stemmed from a mutual interest in racing cars, staying up all night, committing random acts of vandalism and hanging out at the Denny's restaurant in Waldorf.

"A couple of months ago at Denny's," McCann wrote in a December statement to federal investigators, "Patrick Walsh stated that he was going to go off and just start blowing stuff up."

McCann also described how others charged in the case prepared to set the blazes at the development and how Walsh was a member of a gang called the Unseen Cavaliers, another name for The Family.

"They are also firebugs," McCann wrote.

During a subsequent search of Walsh's home, federal agents testified, they discovered bomb-making cookbooks as well as black blasting powder and a handgun locked in a safe.

Other defendants, including Speed, have said they were motivated to commit arson because they did not want blacks from Prince George's County moving into their area. Speed was not called as a witness because prosecutors had fears that his history of mental health problems would be used by the defense.

One witness at the trial testified that Walsh expressed similar concerns about blacks buying houses in Charles County, a point dismissed by the defense attorney as ludicrous.

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