Police make arson arrests, say suspects left playing cards behind

Suspects left playing cards behind at more than a dozen fires

February 05, 2011|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

It was bad enough that someone set his cars on fire in his driveway at 2 in the morning — the flames were so intense that they singed the side of his home in Parkton — but what really scared Gary Carls were the playing cards.

The arsonists had left behind their signature trademark: cards forming a trail that started with the deuce at the fire's source and continued on in sequential order, ending with the ace, face up on Carls' stoop. A note scrawled on the card taunted authorities.

"It was eerie," Carls said Saturday, a day after police in Pennsylvania announced the arrests of two suspects in a string of car fires that began in December 2009 and terrified residents near the Maryland border.

The two 21-year-olds from southern Pennsylvania, identified by police as Alexander Robb of New Freedom and Michael Allen Nalls of Airville, were charged with arson in connection with the latest fire early Friday in Windsor Township, Pa.

Pennsylvania State Police told reporters at a news conference Friday that more charges are expected in up to 14 fires in that state and the one at Carls' house in northern Baltimore County, which occurred in March of last year.

The break in the case that frustrated and perplexed police for months came with the help of an informant's tip that a specific car was to be torched.

According to a police charging document, police set up surveillance on Forest Hills Road in Windsor Township. About 12:30 a.m. on Friday, the court document says, officers saw two men set fire to the car's driver's seat. The suspects were arrested as they drove away.

Pennsylvania newspapers dubbed the arson attacks the "King of Hearts" fires because of the playing cards and speculation that the motive was a dispute arising out of a local high school "King of Hearts" charity dance.

But police told the York Daily Record on Friday that the fires had nothing to do with the dance, though they declined to describe the motive. They also refused to say what was written on the playing cards, though they confirmed that notes had been found at many of the scenes and that the king of hearts was among cards often left behind.

Authorities said the vehicles were apparently chosen at random, and it was unclear why the suspects would have crossed into Maryland and found their way to Carls' house on Andrews Court in Parkton. Carls said he has no connection to Pennsylvania or to police there.

In a telephone interview on Saturday, the 53-year-old Carls said he was "pleased to hear" about the arrests but remains befuddled that he became a target. He said he was home sleeping the night of the fire when his yellow lab Sadie woke him up to go outside.

"When I got down to the garage and looked out, that's when I noticed the car was fully in flames," he said. He ran back upstairs and got his wife and adult daughter out of the house and called the Fire Department.

He had three cars parked in the driveway. At first, only his daughter's Saturn sedan, the one closest to the house, was ablaze. Carls said he watched as flames jumped from the Saturn to his Toyota Camry, and then nicked the side of his house before firefighters arrived.

"There wasn't a whole lot we could do," he said.

After the fire was extinguished, he noticed the trail of playing cards leading up to his front door. He couldn't recall precisely what the note said on the ace, but he said it named a fire or police official in the York area.

"It was almost taunting someone up in Pennsylvania," Carls said.

The two cars that burned were totaled and were replaced with the help of insurance, he said. The fender melted on the third car, which belongs to his son, causing about $3,000 in damage. The fires in Pennsylvania damaged only cars; authorities said the blaze at the Carls residence was among the most severe of the series.

"It almost set my whole house on fire," Carls said.

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