Federal prosecutors have begun overseeing the probe of last week's arsons that decimated part of a new Charles County subdivision, and investigators have narrowed the field of suspects to a promising few, authorities said yesterday.
Although state prosecutors routinely handle arson cases, the Dec. 6 fires at the Hunters Brooke development, which destroyed 10 unoccupied homes and damaged 16 others, was an extraordinary crime that officials said warrants federal prosecution.
The culprit probably would spend more time behind bars if convicted in U.S. District Court than if the case were prosecuted in the state court system. There is no parole in the federal system.
"It's highly likely -- 99 percent sure -- that when the case comes to fruition, it will go federally," said Kelly Long, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio's office took charge of the case yesterday, DiBiagio's spokeswoman said.
As for who set the predawn fires, several federal law enforcement sources said yesterday that the investigation is making progress. The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case is still open, said investigators are focused on more than one strong suspect. They declined to provide more details.
Theresa R. Stoop, the agent in charge of the ATF's Baltimore office, said the likelihood of eventual federal prosecution and the new primary role of DiBiagio's office will not affect the way the probe is being conducted by a task force of local, state and federal investigators.
"The approach to the investigation has not changed," Stoop said. "The federal government is not taking over the [investigation]. It is still a joint investigation, with each agency bringing its expertise, with a focus toward solving this."
Besides damaging or destroying 26 houses, authorities said, the arsonist tried to set fire to 10 other houses, but they did not burn.
Hunters Brooke, where developers plan to build 319 homes, has been the focus of dispute between environmentalists and regulators who approved the subdivision. Many of the people who have settled there, or plan to, are African American. But investigators doubt that the motive for the fires was eco-terrorism or racism, sources said.
Officials declined to say yesterday whether they have settled on a likely motive for the arsons. They also would not discuss why they want the case to be prosecuted federally or under what statute.
However, it is a crime under federal law to commit an arson that interferes with interstate commerce. It could be argued that the fires disrupted sales of Hunters Brooke homes, which are advertised in other states, and disrupted the purchase of building materials from suppliers outside Maryland.
In another development, the sources said yesterday, investigators have questioned the driver of a blue van seen near Hunters Brooke the morning of the fire and have eliminated him as a suspect in the case.