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No Motive Found in Charles Arsons

Eco-Terrorism, Racism Considered

By Michael E. Ruane and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 8, 2004; Page B01

Investigators probing the sodden ruins at a Charles County subdivision where fires destroyed 10 unoccupied new houses said yesterday that they had found no clear evidence of a motive in Maryland's biggest residential arson case in memory.

"Nothing's been narrowed down," said Barry Maddox, a spokesman for the FBI, one of numerous county, state and federal agencies investigating the arsons, which caused an estimated $10 million in damage. The fires broke out about 5 a.m. Monday in the Hunters Brooke development in the Indian Head area and damaged more than a dozen unoccupied houses in addition to those that were destroyed.

Investigators look over one of the houses damaged by arson in the Hunters Brooke development in the Indian Head area. (Susan Walsh -- AP)

_____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 Fire
_____More From The Post_____
At Site of Mass Md. Arson, Families Wait and Worry (The Washington Post, Dec 8, 2004)
Arson Brings Battle Over Bog to Surface (The Washington Post, Dec 8, 2004)
Developer Plans to Rebuild Houses (The Washington Post, Dec 8, 2004)
Arson Turns A Dream Into Dread (The Washington Post, Dec 8, 2004)

Charles County Sheriff Frederick E. Davis said last night that arriving firefighters noticed a blue van heading away from the subdivision on Hunters Brooke Drive. He said investigators were trying to find the van's occupants to question them.

Davis said his office issued a bulletin about the van to sheriff's deputies and to Maryland State Police troopers patrolling in the county. "Right now we're looking at them possibly being a witness to anything that occurred," Davis said, adding that investigators do not consider the occupants of the van to be suspects.

Aaron Speed, 21, a guard with Security Services of America, which was hired by the developer to watch over construction sites at Hunters Brooke, said yesterday that he visited the guard on duty at the site at 3:30 a.m. Monday and saw the van. He said he could only see the driver and is not sure whether anyone else was in the van.

"It basically looked like they were trying to watch," he said, referring to the van. "I saw it lingering around. . . . It kept passing by the construction site entrance."

Officials said they had received no claim of responsibility for the fires, and no "calling card" was left at the scene, which yesterday was a dreary tableau of mud and blackened hulks.

Hunters Brooke, built near an ecologically sensitive bog, has been a focus of dispute between environmentalists and the regulators who allowed the subdivision to be built. Many of those who have settled in Hunters Brooke, or were planning to, are African Americans purchasing homes in the $400,000 to $500,000 range in a county that is mostly white.

Authorities said yesterday that they were unsure whether the fires were set as an act of environmental extremism, as a hate crime or for some other reason.

"We still just remain very open," Maddox said. "We're just conducting a logical investigation, and anything and everything that should be considered is being considered."

While authorities acknowledged that they knew how some of the fires were set, they declined to give specifics. "We will not speak to motive, nor will we speak to suspects or methodology," said W. Faron Taylor, Maryland's deputy fire marshal. "We have no evidence at this point that leads us to any specific individual or group."

Capt. Joseph C. Montminy of the sheriff's office said, "Obviously there were people that didn't want this development here, but who knows who would resort to this type of crime?"

Maddox said he knew of no pattern to the arson and no explanation of why some houses were burned and others were spared. "It's just basically going down a row of homes and maybe they skip one or two" before burning another, he said.

The Maryland state fire marshal's office remained in charge of the investigation, said Mike Campbell, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He said the FBI would take over if a "definitive link to eco-terrorism" is found.

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