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Fires Were Notoriety Ploy, Defendant Says

Club's Leader Was Planner, Men Say

By Eric Rich and Sari Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 22, 2004; Page B10

One of six men charged in the arsons that ravaged a Charles County subdivision told investigators that the fires were intended to raise the profile of a local car club known alternately as the Family and the Unseen Cavaliers, federal authorities said yesterday.

Michael E. Gilbert, 21, who was arrested late Monday and charged with arson, told federal agents that the club's leader, who also has been charged in the case, approached him a month ago with "a plan to make the Family bigger and more famous," according to a law enforcement affidavit made public in court yesterday.

Family members of Aaron Speed, accompanied by Speed's attorney John Chamble, right, and an unidentified lawyer, left, leave U.S. District Court in Greenbelt after Speed was denied bail. (Gail Burton -- AP)

Affidavit signed by FBI agent in support of criminal complaint against Aaron L. Speed.
_____Photo Gallery_____
Md. Arson: Ten homes were destroyed and 16 damaged, resulting in an estimated $10 million in destruction to the new subdivision.
Charles County Fires
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U.S. Prosecution Is Likely for Md. Mass Arson Case (The Washington Post, Dec 16, 2004)
Ecology Terrorism Doubted In Arsons (The Washington Post, Dec 15, 2004)
11 More Houses Were Targeted In Md. Arsons (The Washington Post, Dec 9, 2004)
Arson Turns A Dream Into Dread (The Washington Post, Dec 8, 2004)

Gilbert, of Fort Washington, told investigators that the plan "had to do with setting 'something' on fire and . . . would be big," a federal agent wrote in the affidavit.

The alleged leader, Patrick S. Walsh, 20, was arrested on an arson charge Saturday. According to the affidavit, Gilbert and another man who was arrested Monday evening, Roy T. McCann, 22, have identified Walsh as the main instigator of the arsons at the Hunters Brooke subdivision near Indian Head. Officials have called it the biggest case of residential arson in memory in Maryland.

Drawing attention to a car club is the latest of several possible motives that authorities are known to have considered since the conflagrations destroyed 10 unoccupied new houses and damaged 16 others. Authorities said that the club's name refers to the Chevrolet model that Walsh owns, a Cavalier, and that one of the club's main activities is street racing.

In the affidavit made public , Special Agent Christopher J. Trainor of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives wrote that the club is "a gang operating in Charles County." Other authorities said the group regularly meets in the parking lot of a Wendy's restaurant in Waldorf.

Unseen Cavaliers, however, advertises itself on its Web site as a car club that meets Wednesday nights at the Wendy's and is open to anyone "looking to chill with other cavalier owners."

Attorneys for Walsh and Gilbert declined to comment on the affidavit yesterday. A man and woman who came to the door of Walsh's home in Fort Washington also declined to comment. Gilbert's mother, Christine Gilbert, would only say, "My son's a good boy."

Law enforcement sources said yesterday that they have not settled on a single motive for the arsons and that a combination of factors might have been at work.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Donna Sanger said in court yesterday that some of the suspects have referred to the arsons as "payback." One suspect was a security guard with a company hired to protect the subdivision who felt that the company had treated him poorly, according to an earlier law enforcement affidavit. Another suspect had been turned down for a job by the Hunters Brooke developer, Lennar Homes Inc.

Sanger's remark came during a detention hearing for the former security guard, Aaron L. Speed, 21. Arguing against his possible release on bail, Sanger described the arsons as "nothing less than an effort to wipe out" the subdivision and a calculated effort to draw attention to the club.

"It certainly has done that," Sanger said.

The defendants are white, and Sanger mentioned in passing that many of the people planning to settle in Hunters Brooke are black. When Magistrate Judge Charles E. Day asked whether race was a factor in the crime, Sanger responded that the government is "trying to be very conservative in ascribing" motives.

Speed's attorney, John Chamble, said his client, a father and husband, is "highly releasable." Noting that the torched houses were unoccupied, Chamble said, "As arsons go, if we want to keep it real, this is as benign as it gets."

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