Love and fire

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Published on April 9, 2014

ACCOMACK COUNTY, Va. — The corn was harvested, and the field was a dirty sort of brown. Deborah Clark would think about that later, how at a different time of year she wouldn’t have seen anything until it was too late.

A friend had come over to her house in Parksley, Va., once the kids from Clark’s living-room day care went home. He left about 10:30 that Monday evening, but a few minutes later knocked on her door again. “Hey,” he told her. “That house across the field is on fire.”

She knew which one he was talking about. It had been a nice house once: two stories, white paint. But now it was empty and it had a peeled, beaten look to it. It had been a long time since anyone lived there, so she couldn’t think of how it could have caught fire — except that it was so dry that maybe the weather had something to do with it.

Clark followed her friend outside and saw that he was right. The old sad house was burning down and the flames were rolling in her direction over the brittle field.

She ran next door to warn her neighbor, who, like Clark, lives in a low-slung ranch house off of a silent road. At 10:41 p.m. on Nov. 12, 2012, she called the Eastern Shore 911 center, flustered and out of breath. “I’m just calling — somebody done set the house on fire on Dennis Drive.”

In the coming weeks, she would get used to the sirens. Everybody would. They would sound just after bedtime or just before, twice a night or once a week, from Parksley, Tasley, Melfa, Bloxom. The county vibrated with fire engines groaning over gravel driveways. The county vibrated with suspicion. The county went about its business. The county burned down. People assumed that the culprit must be someone who lived among them, and people would be right. It would be a love story.

Deborah Clark’s fire was the first fire in Accomack County.

In the span of five months, there would be 76 more.

“I didn’t know what was going on. I thought the world was coming to an end,” Clark says, remembering how on that cold, dry night, she stood in her yard and watched a once-fine house disappear into charred wood and ash.

A deserted house sits in Accomack County, which has no shortage of such properties, tucked deep into country roads that aren’t well traveled. Many of the properties the arsonists targeted were uninhabited.

Accomack is an old place, a rural one, established in 1608 or 1634 or 1670, depending on which definition of “established” is being used. It was a farming community originally, making money off white potatoes and lumber.

Along its northern border, which begins midway down the narrow peninsula of the Eastern Shore, is a big sign shaped like a Confederate flag reading, “The South Starts Here.” South of the county, about 60 miles, is the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel that connects Accomack to the rest of the commonwealth. Route 13 makes up the spine of the area, with unmarked drives veining off into quiet dead ends. Everything there is connected to everything else — the people, too, many of whom share last names even if they don’t remember how they share bloodlines. There are lots of car repair shops, a few big-box stores, a few cute cafes, a railway museum.

When the sun goes down, the county is silent and the roads are black as hell.

Just after one in the morning on Nov. 13 — three hours later and 13 miles away from where Clark called 911 — Helen Hasty went to let her dog out and saw flames surrounding some outbuildings on the farm she owned.

“They’re not insured, they’re vacant — they’re just old shacks that have been there for a hundred years,” she told the operator who answered. She hadn’t heard anything. She hadn’t seen anything. “Oh my God,” she said as the fire presumably grew bigger. “There she goes.”

The next 911 call came just eight minutes later: A brush fire had been set near a ditch bank and burned a 10th of an acre of woods.

Twenty-one hours after that, a sheriff’s deputy on his way home called to report that an abandoned house was burning.

Another call followed at 10:45 p.m., and another at 11:43.

“Hey, buddy,” Miles Thornton, who made the 11:43 call, said to the operator. “There’s a structure fire over on Savannah Road.” Thornton had stepped outside for a cigarette when he heard a crackling sound, which was coming from an empty house seven miles north of the original fire in Parksley. “I looked over,” Thornton explained, “and all I saw was orange in the sky.”

Warren Phillips records gun sales at Jaxon’s Hardware in Parksley, Va., a store he owns — and that his father owned before him. Phillips said that during the arsons, he avoided going out at night.

It was a little more than 24 hours after the first fire had been set. Now there were six.

The Accomack County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have its own fire investigators, so the Virginia State Police sent special agents to examine the properties. The agents determined that all of the fires had been intentionally set.

At the time of the 1910 Census, Accomack had the highest per capita income of any non-urban area in the United States. That was the peak of the county’s fortune. Over the next century, the population sank, from 53,000 at its height to 33,000 in 2010. People picked up and moved, north to Delaware or across the Chesapeake Bay to the mainland, leaving unsellable houses behind to crumble in an emptying county. Those who stayed ran stores, taught school, farmed crops, and got jobs with Tyson or Perdue, which have plants nearby and process millions of chickens a year.

For weeks before it burned on March 12, 2013, people in Tasley, Va., had been wondering whether the old, empty Whispering Pines motel — which once boasted a top-rated restaurant — would be targeted. (Jay Diem, Eastern Shore News.)

Once the arsons started, outsiders would occasionally wonder why nobody had been caught, after all that time, after all those fires.

“I can comprehend why they lasted so long,” says Jim Eichelberger, the mayor of Parksley.

“First of all, there’s no traffic off of 13,” he says. “After 8 or 9 p.m., you won’t see but two cars.” People in Accomack don’t waste money making unnecessary car trips. They have no cause to drive down the deep country roads where a lot of the fires were set, he reasons, so they had no chance to see who could have been lighting them.

The second reason the fires kept happening had to do with simple supply.

“As for running out of abandoned buildings?” Eichelberger says. “Naw. They could never run out of abandoned buildings here.”

Lois Gomez’s Christmas lights were half up on Dec. 15, 2012. She hadn’t decided whether to bother with the rest of the decorations, which were meanwhile stored in the family’s detached garage. In the middle of that night, she got up for a drink of water and heard a passerby banging on her door, yelling that the garage was on fire — approximately the 30th fire since the arsons had begun a month before. The family kept chickens in a pen attached to the garage, and as Gomez watched her property burn, she realized that whoever set the fire had taken the time to let out all the birds, which were now running around the lawn at 4 a.m.

It was a strange time to live in the neighborhood.

A few weeks later, just down the street, someone burned out an old pickup truck, and residents watched firefighters put out the flames.

Charlie Smith and his fiancée, Tonya Bundick, who lived next door to the Gomezes, were in the crowd. After the fire was extinguished, according to an investigation document, Tonya asked fellow onlooker Joanna Thornes who she thought was responsible. She told Thornes that the arsonist was too smart to be caught. The police had canvassed the area and had visited Charlie and Tonya’s house twice, Tonya remembers, to ask if they’d seen anything.

As the fires swept the county, the police offered rewards for information leading to the arsonists, then quintupled the offers, up to $25,000. Whispering Pines motel was targeted in March 2013, four months after the fires began.

Months passed and fires accumulated. Houses, shacks, cabins. Billboards, piles of tires. Nothing that pointed to insurance fraud; many of these places weren’t insured. This was a county that didn’t have much, and what it didn’t have was burning down. A storage building burned down, and an airplane hangar burned down, and a Methodist church almost burned down but didn’t. A commercial garage caught fire, and so did the propane tank inside it, and that fire was on Christmas Eve and the flames lit the horizon. For weeks, people had been wondering whether Whispering Pines — a ramshackle, shuttered motel that used to have a AAA-rated restaurant — would burn down, and it would, eventually, but the next day there would be another building, and another, and there was always something else burning.

The police issued statements and reward offers, and then they quintupled the reward offers, up to $25,000. Residents given to more paranoid explanations thought the federal government might be responsible, maybe via drones.

An industrious group of armchair detectives who called themselves the Eastern Shore Arsonist Hunters purchased motion-triggered cameras, positioning them at a house they thought was a likely target. When they came back the next day, they discovered a police camera also there, trained on their own movements.

But even while the reward led nowhere and the armchair detectives surveilled nobody but each other, there were still signposts.

It was the 44th fire of the series, and it took place at the residence of J.D. Shreaves, a single father who works for a tree-pruning company.

In February, three months into the arsons, Shreaves left his house near Accomack’s northern border to drop off his two young daughters at his mother’s. The round-trip drive took no more than 25 minutes. Back at home, he thought he smelled something burning, but when he walked from room to room he found nothing and decided he’d imagined it.

Later that evening, though, when his daughters returned, they smelled something, too. This time, Shreaves took a flashlight outside. On the back of his house, the siding had been pulled away, and a lit piece of cloth was stuffed into the boards.

His daughters sobbed as he called the police. “Girls, calm down,” he told them. “Your daddy’s here with you.” He was no expert, but the lit rag — it was obvious the fire was set intentionally.

If that were true, though, it meant an aberration from the pattern. Shreaves’s house wasn’t abandoned; it was occupied by a family. And then there was the sequencing — the fact that the fire was set in the 25 minutes he was gone. It meant someone had timed it perfectly. It meant someone had been watching him.

There was one other detail that didn’t seem to mean anything.

“That night of my house?” Shreaves remembers. “It was Valentine’s Day.”

The burned out remains of an abandoned mobile home and house on John Caine Road in Parksley, Va., pictured nearly a year after it was destroyed. The property was one of the last to be hit during an arson spree in Accomack County.

“Charlie ‘wasn’t a mean-spirited person at all,’ Wessels says. People wouldn’t have used his business if he were. He was always friendly around the shop, he just seemed like a doofus whose addiction kept causing him to screw up.”

By that February, of 2013, Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick had been dating for about two years. Everybody knew Charlie. Some people knew him as Charlie Applegate, the surname of the stepfather who had raised him, but everybody knew him in one way or another. He was of average height, 5-foot-8, but seemed smaller because of a hunched, folded-in way of walking. He had red hair, cut close, a goatee and wide blue eyes.

He’d once been a volunteer firefighter at the Tasley station, in the south-central part of the county, although he hadn’t been active for several years. Now he ran an auto shop on Tasley Road, where he did body and paint work. He used to perform the same tasks out of his stepfather’s shop across the street, but they had a falling out and no longer spoke much. One time, Wayne Wessels, an acquaintance of the family, went to Charlie for a touch-up job; Charlie didn’t have the right materials but thought his stepfather might. Rather than call himself, he asked Wessels to go over and pick up the supplies so the father and son wouldn’t have to interact.

The rift had been at least partly over drugs, people speculated. Charlie, 38, had begun experimenting when he was 13, and by his late teens he nursed a crack addiction, according to court documents from the mid-1990s. In 1994, he was living with an uncle who looked the other way when his nephew stole a coin collection, a gun and a 10-speed bicycle, but who couldn’t when Charlie began writing checks in the uncle’s name. They were for relatively small amounts — $65, $110 — but there were a lot of them, and Charlie eventually was charged with 24 counts of forgery. A 1996 letter from a probation officer recounts how he was put into a drug treatment program, relapsed, referred to a mental health counselor, relapsed.

“He wasn’t a mean-spirited person at all,” Wessels says. People wouldn’t have used his business if he were. He was always friendly around the shop; he just seemed like a doofus whose addiction kept causing him to screw up.

One night in mid-2011, he went to Shuckers Roadhouse, a rural Accomack bar. He was carrying two eight-balls of cocaine. Some friends had set him up on a date.

Tonya Bundick didn’t approve of drugs. She was a single mom raising two boys on a nursing assistant’s salary; she didn’t use illegal substances and didn’t like to associate with people who did. When Tonya met Charlie, she told him that if he was going to be around her kids, he couldn’t be on drugs.

For her, he went clean, he would later say. For her, on the very night they met, he flushed his eight-balls down the toilet.

Like Charlie, Tonya, 41, had grown up in Accomack. Bundick is a good Eastern Shore name, appearing on law offices and small businesses around the county. Although Tonya remembers having a happy childhood, others recall her as a bit of an outsider: She wore cheap shoes and clothes that looked like hand-me-downs, one classmate says. Other students harassed her on the school bus or in the cafeteria.

“She wasn’t one of those that got picked on that became meek,” the classmate says. When people got mean, she fought back. A boy tried to trip her, and “she jumped right up and sent fists flying.”

“You could say anything to him and he would laugh,” Tonya says. “His smile would just light up his face.”

Her father was a hard man, but her mother, who had studied to be a nurse before having children, was loving. Tonya liked to read her mother’s old textbooks as a young girl, and she took her certified nursing assistant courses while still in high school.

As Tonya got older, she grew into her looks. Her face was fine-boned, almost Nefertiti-like. She put highlights in her thick brown hair and wore meticulously applied eyeliner. She was 5-foot-6 with a figure that was long-limbed and large-busted. She would dance on tables when out weekly at Shuckers, which wasn’t unusual for the establishment, but sometimes she’d do it even when nobody else was.

On one of the nights that Kelly Rose, a Shuckers waitress, first met Tonya, she walked into the bar wearing nothing but a bra and underwear beneath her trench coat. “Wow, I got the same outfit at home, but I must do it wrong,” Rose joked to a co-worker, “because I wear clothes over the top.” People noticed Tonya.

Privately, Tonya always thought of herself as a homebody. She liked to read novels, she liked to be in with her boys. “She kept to herself,” an old boyfriend says. She was a showy introvert, a private exhibitionist.

But on the night of that first date with Charlie, a set-up by mutual friends, they both opened up, talking for hours in the parking lot. He told her about his troubled past. She told him about her kids. She loved how easygoing he seemed, and the way he laughed. “You could say anything to him and he would laugh,” Tonya says. “His smile would just light up his face.”

Charlie moved in with Tonya, to the white bungalow she shared with her sons in Parksley. In the same building that Charlie opened his garage, Tonya opened a business of her own, selling clothing in the front office area. She named the store “A Tiny Taste of Toot,” after the pet name her father called her. Charlie, Tonya remembers, would hang out in her store more than in his portion of the building, until finally she would have to shoo him away, explaining that women didn’t like shopping for clothes around a man covered in dust and car paint.

They seemed very in love. “Lovey-dovey, I guess you’d call it,” says James Kline, who knew them and would see them in public. They shared a Facebook account, and sometimes Charlie logged on to leave her public messages. “It’s Char,” he commented on a close-up of Tonya. “Not only are you the best and I love you, your the most beautiful girl in the whole damn world.”

One afternoon in the spring or summer of 2012, before the arsons, they went for lunch at the Sage Diner. Charlie was fidgety, leaving the restaurant to pace around outside. Tonya wondered if something was wrong, but when he returned to the table, his words came out in a jumble. “I have something to ask you,” she remembers him saying. Will you marry me?

She dressed up as the Easter Bunny for a children’s celebration. They both dressed up for Halloween, as vampires. Their acquaintance Seth Matthews took a few photos of them in costume, and when Tonya saw them, she asked if he would photograph their wedding. He warned her that he was no professional, but agreed to anyway for $250.

In March 2013, Tonya posted on her clothing store’s Facebook page that she would be closing for a few months to focus on planning the wedding. She was hoping it could be in May, if they could get money together. Their colors would be blue and silver.

Later that month, Charlie told Wayne Wessels that he wished he knew who was responsible for the arsons. He said that he had half a mind to find a passed-out junkie, drive him to an abandoned building and plant a lighter on him, just to collect the $25,000 in reward money. Wessels thought the joke was out of character and in poor taste but chalked it up to the stress the whole county was feeling.

Charlie was under stress, because Charlie was the one setting the fires. He says Tonya was, too. He says they were Tonya’s idea.

Firefighters monitor one of the arsons, which destroyed a house on Church Road in Accomac, Va., on March 5, 2013. (Jay Diem, Eastern Shore News.)

“Arsonists generally don’t confess. They don’t feel guilty. They don’t show up in police stations and say, ‘This has been keeping me up at night.’ ”

Arson is a weird crime. It has no obvious pay off; unlike burglary or drug dealing, it doesn’t make its perpetrators richer, unless it’s an insurance-related plot. The forensic profile that psychiatrists have come up with is skewed by limited sample size: Only 17 percent of arsonists are ever caught.

“It’s the most underprosecuted crime,” says Dian Williams. “Arsonists generally don’t confess. They don’t feel guilty. They don’t show up in police stations and say, ‘This has been keeping me up at night.’ ”

Williams is an arson profiler, the founder of the Center for Arson Research. She has interviewed more than 1,000 arsonists, by her estimate, and she divides them into categories: revenge arsonists, thrill-seekers, disordered-coping fire starters. Most of them are white. Most of them are men. Some of them, such as John Orr, a famous thrill-seeking arsonist who lit an estimated 2,000 fires in Southern California while maintaining his day job as a fire investigator, revel in the havoc they secretly create.

Some of them light fires because they have primitive coping skills, and the arsons are symbolic ways of working through childhood trauma. Sometimes the reasons are more inscrutable, Williams says: “When you talk to thrill-seekers and ask them to describe in one word the reason that caused them to set fires, the reason, time after time, is ‘boredom.’”

Virginia state troopers Troy L. Johnson and Willie Burke had been waiting for about three hours. It was April Fools’ Day, 2013. They got into position a little after 8 p.m. and set up their equipment: night-vision goggles, a portable radio and a hunter’s camouflage pup tent pitched out of view 50 yards behind the tree line.

Johnson and Burke’s task that night was to monitor a house at 19322 Airport Dr. in Melfa, near the southern border of the county. The home’s owner, Claude Henry, had purchased the house for $19,000 and planned to fix it up, but it was still dilapidated enough that police had added it to a watch list of empty properties.

Johnson, who has been with the police for four years, wore the goggles. At 11:25 p.m., he saw a gold minivan stop in the road. A passenger leaped out and ran at a dead sprint toward the back of the house. Johnson saw a series of sparks. To the trooper, it seemed like time slowed down as he waited, presumably, to be sure the figure was the arsonist they’d been trying to catch.

Finally, the fire took and the figure ran back toward the road. Johnson and Burke chased after, but just as they were clearing the forest, the minivan reappeared. The figure, wearing dark, baggy clothes, jumped in through the passenger’s side and the van drove off.

Burke, a nine-year police veteran who carried the radio, used it to alert nearby units. The police vehicle carrying Accomack Sheriff’s Sgt. Wayne Greer was the first to respond. He pulled over the minivan at a traffic light half a mile down the road, where rural Airport Drive intersects with the more populated Route 13.

Charlie Smith emerged from the passenger side and put his hands up. Martin Kriz, a state trooper who had arrived shortly after Greer, approached the driver, Tonya Bundick, who was wearing a white top and yoga pants. He asked if she was carrying anything he should know about, and she said she had a ChapStick tucked in her bra.

By the time Todd Godwin, the longtime sheriff of Accomack County, showed up at the scene, the intersection was swarming with police cars.

Godwin went over to Greer’s vehicle, where Charlie had been placed in the back seat.

Charlie looked up at the sheriff, whom he’d known for 20 years the way people in this county just know one another. “Todd,” he said, “I’m sorry, but I didn’t light them all.”

Video: Charlie Smith confesses

Charlie and Tonya were arrested, driven to separate police stations and taken into interrogation rooms. State police officer Scott Wade, who had been home enjoying a night off, was called in to question Tonya. She told him that she and Charlie had been driving around that night when he asked her to stop and let him out of the car. She did, she told Wade, and then a few minutes later she swung back to pick him up. She didn’t know he’d gone to light the fire, she said. She didn’t know anything about the arsons.

Charlie’s interviewers were Godwin and Robert Barnes, a special agent with the Virginia police. The interrogation room was equipped with a table, three chairs and a red cooler someone had left sitting in the corner.

“Was there any that you liked better?” Charlie shook his head. “I hated every night.”

“You know Rob, don’t you?” asked Godwin, who has a reassuring high-tenor voice and a face that looks, perpetually, freshly shaved.

“Unfortunately, yeah.” Charlie, who wore baggy jeans and a black hooded sweatshirt, burst into sudden, sheepish laughter. “I like him and all, I didn’t mean it like that.”

Barnes brought the subject around to the matter at hand. “Do you understand why we’re all here?” he asked. “Lots of fires been going on and stuff.”

Charlie was open about his participation, but when Godwin and Barnes tried to ask him why he’d done it and how it started, he grew cagey. “Is she here?” he asked. He wanted to see Tonya. “Is there any way we can get her out of this?”

He didn’t want to give them information about her. Eventually, though, his version of their story came out: her son, his inferiority, how much he loved her and how much he thought she needed the fires.

“Was it, like, a relief for her?” Barnes asked.

“I think so,” Charlie said. They never stayed to watch any of them burn, he said. They just lit them and ran.

“Was there any that you liked better?”

Charlie shook his head. “I hated every night.”

Charlie Smith seemed reluctant to give arson investigators information about his fiancée, Tonya Bundick. But eventually his version of their story came out: her son, his sense of inferiority, how much he loved her and how much he thought she needed the fires. (Photos by Vicki Cronis-Nohe, The Virginian-Pilot via Associated Press)

There are things Charlie and Tonya agree on, about what led them to the house on Airport Road. There are aspects to the story Charlie and Tonya don’t agree on at all, having to do with how a love story became a fire story.

They have both attested, either in interviews or court documents, that in 2012 and 2013, they were going through a rough patch.

Tonya found out her older son had a behavioral disorder when he was a young child, but the problems were increasing in severity as he entered adolescence. The issues ultimately led to several hospitalizations, and to him being placed in a home-school program. Tonya was forced to quit her nursing job to care for him. The clothing store, A Tiny Taste of Toot, was a response to this chain of events: Tonya thought running her own business would allow her the flexibility to tend to her son.

Charlie’s life had been upended in its own way. His mother passed away in May 2012, and unbeknownst to Tonya, the death had caused him to start using again, he would later say. He had a daughter from a previous relationship, and the girl’s mother cut off his contact with the child when she learned about the relapse.

What embarrassed him even more than the drugs was something else happening with Tonya. He loved her. He wasn’t looking for a relationship when they met but he ended up loving that woman more than he’d ever loved any woman.

“And the minute I fell in love,” he would later explain to detectives, “My dick stopped working.”

He and Tonya hadn’t had sex in more than a year.

“He would psych his own self out,” says Tonya, in a lengthy interview from the Eastern Shore Regional Jail, where she has been incarcerated since November.

Because of the couple’s bedroom problems, she says, she encouraged Charlie to see a doctor, who told Charlie the problem wasn’t physical. He’d always thought he didn’t deserve someone as smart and clean and good as Tonya. She repeatedly reassured him that she loved him, but he couldn’t imagine that could continue to be true.

In late 2012, around the time the arsons began, Tonya says, Charlie’s behavior changed. He started disappearing. While she stayed home with the children, he would tell her he had to go back to the garage. He would claim he was finishing up a paint job, or delivering an estimate to a customer — but he’d never worked nights like this before, and he didn’t seem to be bringing in more money despite the extra hours. Tonya worried that he was cheating on her, although he denied it when she confronted him.

Charlie has a different version of these events. Charlie says Tonya knew exactly where he was in the evenings spanning late 2012 and early 2013.

“I just couldn’t let her down,” he would tell the police in his confession. “I mean, her son had just torn her to pieces. . . . She don’t hit her kids, she don’t yell at them.”

Ask her about one of Charlie’s accounts in particular, and she shakes her head. That never happened, she says, a moment of incredulity in a private jail interview that has been mostly calm, in which she has openly answered most questions.

What Charlie says happened: On Nov. 12 — the night Deborah Clark placed the first call to 911 — Charlie and Tonya were driving around Parksley. It was an evening ritual. He would come home after work and take her to McDonald’s for coffee.

According to Charlie, on this particular night, Tonya suddenly veered from the routine. They cruised past a peeling house on Dennis Drive, two miles from where they lived. It had been a rough week. Tonya, he says, had received more bad news about her son. They drove past that house and, Charlie claims, Tonya suggested they burn it down.

Charlie says he figured it was a joke, but Tonya kept talking about it. Finally, he realized she was serious. She dropped him off near the abandoned house. He went inside. He sat for 10 minutes. He didn’t light anything. He then went back out to the car and lied to her. He told her he’d set the fire, and they drove away.

Over the next few hours, he says, it was like something in Tonya softened. She started to share with him intimate details of her life that she never had before, and he couldn’t help but think that her sudden forthcomingness was because of what she believed he’d done for her.

“I just couldn’t let her down,” he would tell the police in his confession. “I mean, her son had just torn her to pieces. . . . She don’t hit her kids, she don’t yell at them.” She didn’t do drugs. She didn’t have any outlets.

So he admitted that he’d lied; the house was still standing. And then they drove back to the house together, in the dark, empty county where both of them had grown up and both of them struggled. This time, Charlie would later say, Tonya lit the fire.

She lit the next dozen, too, he says, and it wasn’t until the 15th fire, on Nov. 21, that this changed: Tonya was nearly spotted by police posted near the site. Unable to bear the thought of her being caught, Charlie announced that he would take over.

Most of the time, the fires were random, spur of the moment. Only a few of them were personal. Like the fire at J.D. Shreaves’s house. Shreaves was Tonya’s ex-boyfriend. They dated for six months and had broken up a couple of years earlier. Shreaves had seen Tonya and Charlie out and about since then and thought their conversations were cordial. But on Valentine’s Day night, when Shreaves was taking his daughters to their grandmother’s, Charlie was peering in his windows to make sure nobody was home, pulling back the siding of the single-story house, stuffing an old shirt underneath, and using a cigarette lighter to ignite the blaze.

On or around March 30, Charlie would tell the police, he and Tonya had sex for the first time in 18 months.

The morning sun reflects off a home on Dennis Drive in Parksley, Va., in February 2014. The area has a high poverty rate and is filled with abandoned homes -- dozens were destroyed by arson.

Charlie Smith pleaded guilty to 67 counts of arson and one count of conspiracy to commit arson. “Mr. Smith is very remorseful,” said his attorney, Carl Bundick, no relation to Tonya, in a brief interview in front of the courthouse on Oct. 30, the day of Charlie’s no-contest bench trial.

Tonya Bundick was initially charged with one count of conspiracy and one count of arson — the final fire on Airport Road where police had stopped the gold minivan. She was originally placed in Accomack County Jail, where Charlie was also being held.

Her access to news was limited, and she didn’t know that Charlie had implicated her in his confession. He was still writing her love letters, she says. He would bury them by the flagpole in the Accomack exercise yard, folded between plastic prison cutlery, for her to retrieve during her own hour outside. He talked about wanting to marry her. She thought she still wanted to marry him.

She didn’t know the extent of his betrayal until she was let out on bond and saw the excerpts of his confession that had been leaked to the media. She didn’t believe her eyes at first. And then, as it began to sink in, she felt numb.

In December, a month after Charlie had pleaded guilty, Tonya was charged with an additional 62 counts of arson. This time she was sent to Eastern Shore Regional Jail, away from Charlie. Her younger son went to live with his father; her older son was placed in foster care. She wrote poetry from her cell, which a friend posted on Facebook, in which she worried that she would be forgotten “like the fading seasons.” She maintained her innocence.

She awaited trial.

Between Dec. 1 — when the Virginia State Police began collecting data on its arson investigation — and mid-April, police personnel dedicated 26,378 regular work hours and 14,924 overtime and comp hours to solving the arsons in Accomack County. The agency spent $112,833 on lodging, $67,404 on food, $86,671 on fuel and $37,837 on aviation expenses.

Five months after the arsons began, they ended.

A long-vacant house on Dennis Drive in Parksley, Va., was the first to be set on fire, on Nov. 12, 2012. Nothing about the arsons pointed to insurance fraud, as many of the properties weren’t insured.

The Jan. 14 trial of Tonya Bundick, which would decide her fate on the two initial charges, was becoming the largest spectacle the county had seen in recent memory. It was moved from Accomack over the Bay Bridge-Tunnel to Virginia Beach, a trip that takes 90 minutes — the first time in decades an Accomack case had required a change of venue.

Tonya entered the courtroom with a walk that seemed unrushed and languid. She sat between her two attorneys, a father-and-son team, wearing black slacks and a ruffled blue button-down blouse. Money had not been deposited into her Virginia Beach jail account in time for her to purchase makeup from the commissary, and Tonya felt unkempt, stripped of the products she normally so carefully applied.

The maximum sentence for the two charges was 20 years.

“How do you plead?” the judge asked Tonya, whose response was quiet and lilting.

“Not guilty.”

Charlie, the commonwealth’s star witness, shuffled into the courtroom with his feet and hands shackled, avoiding eye contact with Tonya, whom he hadn’t seen since before her second arrest six weeks earlier. Tonya had steeled herself for this moment, and she kept her eyes averted from the man whose laugh she had once fallen in love with.

“I’d do whatever I could to make her happy,” he said. “I didn’t want to lose her.”

Charlie’s voice was wavering and quiet as he answered Commonwealth Prosecutor Gary Agar’s questions. Was it true that he had been engaged to Tonya Bundick?

“I still love her,” he said, and his throat caught.

Tonya’s attorneys argued that Charlie’s testimony wasn’t built on a sudden desire to do the right thing, but rather on a possessive fear that Tonya might meet someone else while he was in prison.

“It would kill you if you found out she was dating someone else,” asked the younger attorney, Christopher Zaleski.

“Yes,” Charlie acknowledged.

“You wanted her to always be your princess.”

“Yeah.”

Charlie insisted that he just wanted to do what was right, and that he hadn’t been told of any special deal he would get for testifying against Tonya. “I’d do whatever I could to make her happy,” he said. “I didn’t want to lose her.”

Tonya Bundick talks with one of her attorneys during a short break in court on Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, in Virginia Beach, Va. Bundick wound up submitting a guilty plea to one count of arson and one count of conspiracy to commit arson, though she continues to deny involvement with the fires. A grand jury in December indicted Bundick on 62 arson counts, but those charges will be heard separately. (Vicki Cronis-Nohe, The Virginian-Pilot)

Love is a weird act: a temporary insanity, an optimistic delusion. Fire is a passionate element, and it captivates even as it destroys.

Accomack is a small county that looked half-gutted even before the fires started, where love and fire could combine to transform two ordinary people’s lives into an epic romance.

Late on the morning of Jan. 14, the defense called Tonya to the stand. Her hair was tangled and she wore the same clothes she had the day before.

What she talked about on the stand was not a story of romance so much as it was a story of life, in a rural county, in 2013.

She and Charlie had driven 20 miles to the Wal-Mart in Pocomoke on the night of the last fire, she said. Her boys had birthdays coming up and they wanted smartphones. They were home alone that night. She thought they could be on their own for a few hours — the older one was 13. Yes, her older son had a behavioral disorder. Yes, he’d been put out of school several times. Yes, she and Charlie would drive to McDonald’s some nights for coffee, because it was the only chance she had to get out of the house.

At Wal-Mart, she said, Charlie wanted to buy a package of Steak-umms. She told him no. They were trying to stay on a budget. He acted petulant. They left, and in the car, he asked if she wanted to stop at another Wal-Mart down in Onley. She said fine, thinking maybe he’d decided on something else to buy her sons. In the second Wal-Mart, she went to the underwear section. He followed her there, just like he used to follow her into her clothing shop, or from room to room after they first started dating. Now, it bothered her. She asked him, “Do you have to be up in my ass while I’m looking at underwear?”

They started to drive home. He asked her to let him out so he could urinate. He got back in the car and they drove a little more. They were both still mad. She told him, look, “if things are too hard to deal with, all you got to do is walk.”

He asked to be let out again. She was angry and didn’t ask why. She picked him up a few minutes later. They went through a light on Airport Road, and then all of a sudden, “there was the cops. Everywhere.”

It was the first time, she said, that she realized Charlie had anything to do with the arsons. At her trial, she insisted what she has always insisted, in testimony, police questioning and in her jailhouse interview: She thought they were just getting out of the house for a while. She thought they were just going for a ride.

Tonya and Charlie’s relationship had become one of two love stories.

Either, as Charlie says, he loved her so much that he had been willing to burn up a county because he thought it would make her happy. Or, as Tonya grew to believe, he loved her too much to let her be free while he went to prison alone.

Two houses on Church Road in Accomac, Va., were ruined by the arsons, which also destroyed shacks, cabins, a storage building and an airplane hangar.

At 12:39 p.m. on Jan. 14, Tonya’s lawyers re-entered the courtroom and announced that their client would like to change her plea. During a recess, she says, they told her that they’d tried to read the mood in the courtroom and it didn’t look good. The jurors, who would have sentencing power if she were found guilty, seemed as though they believed Charlie’s testimony. Because of this, the attorneys advised Tonya to submit an Alford Plea, in which the defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges that the state has presented enough evidence to result in a conviction.

The charge, passed down from the grand jury, had read: “On or about April 1, 2013, in the County of Accomack, Tonya Susan Bundick did feloniously and maliciously burn or destroy by the use of explosive in whole or in part a building or structure having a value of over $200 belonging to Claude Henry, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.”

In the courtroom, the charges were read again.

“To this, do you enter a plea of guilty or not guilty?” The judge asked.

Charlie had testified that he’d lit the fires to win her love.

That love was changed now.

The county was changed now, dotted with blackened heaps of rubble appearing along the fields.

“Guilty,” Tonya said, and whatever flames had been ignited in Accomack County weren’t burning anymore.

Tonya Bundick is awaiting sentencing on her initial charges. On Thursday, a sentencing hearing will take place in Accomack county to determine how she will be tried on the 62 remaining indictments. Charles Smith is awaiting sentencing on charges that carry up to 584 years in prison.

To reach the reporter e-mail Monica.Hesse@washpost.com

About this story

This article was reported from several dozen sources. Tonya Bundick contributed written correspondence and permitted a 90-minute interview at Eastern Shore Regional Jail. Charles Smith’s attorney did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. Smith’s version of events was pieced together from video of his confession, his testimony at Bundick’s trial and a document detailing to his participation in the arsons, presented to the court at the time of his guilty plea. Other sources included in-person and telephone interviews, news articles and releases, court documents, 911 recordings and police expenditures obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, and the courtroom testimonies of Virginia State Police officers and representatives from the Accomack County Sheriff’s Office. Julie Tate and Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report.

 

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