Domestic case leads investigators to serial arsonist

Feds, local authorities spend nearly two years on case

August 14, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

The theory behind how and why the crime took place hasn't changed since January of last year, when the feds arrested Scott Daniel Wilson and charged him with burning down his single-story rancher on Mink Hollow Road in Howard County.

The 56-year-old businessman was battling the relatives of his dead ex-wife over the estate. They wanted the half-million-dollar house, and he didn't want to give it to them. Police believe he set the fire on Halloween 2008 out of spite.

But detectives soon discovered that the burning was far from an isolated incident. Wilson had a criminal past that spanned three decades and included setting fires in Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Howard counties and the Eastern Shore.

Federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives branded Wilson a serial arsonist.

Police and fire investigators spent more than 100 hours examining the ruins of the burned house, kept Wilson under nearly 24-hour surveillance as they built their case and even re-created a staircase on which an accelerant had been poured and burned it to test the fire pattern.

Arsonists are typically thought of as thrill seekers — they love to see fire and many even stick around to watch their handiwork. But Wilson was motivated more by anger than by profit, more by revenge than by adventure, and driven, according to court documents filed by prosecutors, by frequent bouts of excessive drinking.

The acting special agent in charge of Baltimore's ATF office, Joe Riehl, compared Wilson to a gunman who instead of using bullets used fire. "Arson was his tool of choice," Riehl told me after Wilson pleaded guilty on July 30 to one count of arson.

U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett sentenced Wilson to the maximum 20 years in prison, exceeding by three years the recommendation of federal prosecutors, who wrote in a sentencing memorandum that "the defendant's repeated and unending pattern of committing arsons … placed peoples' lives in danger and property at great risk."

Howard County police Detective Edward Upton described the case as the "largest arson case we've ever done."

Wilson's court-appointed attorney, Sean Vitrano, filed a notice of appeal last week, and in an interview said he will argue that the judge's 20-year sentence improperly exceeded recommended guidelines. He said there are significant gaps in Wilson's crime sprees.

"From our perspective, the result of what happened at sentencing was severe and feels very disproportionate to the crime," Vitrano said on Friday. "The judge treated him as a de facto career offender based on dated records of prior arsons. … You have to consider whether Mr. Wilson is really the monster the ATF wants him to be."

Wilson amassed more than 30 criminal charges from the mid-1970s through 1985, including 10 arson convictions (one charge was for trapping his first wife in a closet and setting fires outside the door) and a string of domestic abuse arrests.

He was sent to prison and to a psychiatric hospital after he held his mother hostage at gunpoint in 1978. He got out in 1985, and his subsequent criminal record consisted mostly of drunken-driving arrests. In 1994, he married his second wife, Sarah Manning, the daughter of a retired FBI agent.

The couple built a successful computer recycling business in a warehouse on Maier Road that was featured on CNN for what was then an innovative way to get rid of computer waste without clogging landfills.

The couple divorced in 2006, and Manning died in 2007. The medical examiner listed the cause of death as inconclusive, though she had problems with her joints and a history of prescription drug use, according to court documents.

Prosecutors said in their sentencing memorandum that Wilson became despondent and angry after the divorce and subsequent death of Manning, and he took out his hostilities on her family. He claimed he and his wife had an agreement that should anything happen to either, the other would get the house.

But the Manning family wanted the house on Mink Hollow Road and fought Wilson in court. Authorities said Wilson repeatedly threatened to destroy the dwelling.

"On multiple occasions after Sarah Manning's death, the defendant made statements to multiple people talking about his intent to burn it down," prosecutors wrote in the sentencing memorandum. "This started as early as the day of her death."

Authorities said he told his wife's brother-in-law, "I ought to just … throw a blanket over the space heater." Another relatives said Wilson "talked about how fast the house would go up, and that sometimes Wilson would talk of dying in the blaze."

His employees reported that Wilson "talked about killing the Mannings and burning them," according to court documents. In 2008, police said Wilson burned his ex-wife's dresser and clothes in his driveway, "to keep the Mannings from getting her stuff."

About 50 firefighters went to Mink Hollow Road on Oct. 31, 2008. Police arrived to find Wilson sitting in his Jeep Cherokee in the driveway — one witness told police he was barefoot and appeared dazed. Police said he revved the engine and sped forward, forcing firefighter Paul Hahn to jump onto a fire engine to get out of the way.

The Jeep ran over hose lines, hit a tree stump, went into the air and crashed into a pile of rocks. Police removed Wilson, who had cracked three ribs, at gunpoint. His story about a spark and an electrical panel causing the fire immediately sounded suspect.

Upton and Riehl said accelerant had been poured in several places in the house, including on a staircase, and that Halloween wasn't the only time fires had been set at the house. Prosecutors said it had been turned into a "fire laboratory."

The Mink Hollow Road fire, Riehl said, "was not the first time he set a fire, nor will it be the last time."

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