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Arson Turns A Dream Into Dread

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, December 8, 2004; Page B01

Dawn Hightower was dressing for work Monday morning, still in somewhat of a dream state, anticipating the Big Day just 48 hours away. She and her husband, Jacque, and their two children, ages 12 and 3, were all set to move into their newly constructed five-bedroom "dream home" near Indian Head in Charles County.

"It was a family-friendly, homey-type house with all the amenities," said Dawn, 31, a paralegal specialist with the U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia. "It had a big basement; two huge, separate his and her walk-in closets; a marble stool in the shower; and separate sinks at each end of the bathroom, so you don't have to share. You don't even have to get near each other."

Jacque and Dawn Hightower listen to a fire marshal's briefing on the arsons at Hunters Brooke subdivision. (Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

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She recalled putting on a shirt, her back turned to a 6 a.m. television newscast, when she overheard the name of her new subdivision, Hunters Brooke.

"I thought they were saying something nice about the neighborhood since so many of us were about to move in," she said. "When I turned to look, all I could see was the whole neighborhood engulfed in this glowing orange fire. I basically . . . screamed out to my husband. I was in shock."

Jacque Hightower, a 32-year-old professional development specialist with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, rushed into the room where Dawn was screaming, "Our house in on fire." He heard on television that an engine company from the Potomac Heights Volunteer Fire Department was on the scene and concluded that the fire was in Potomac Heights.

"That's not our neighborhood," he told his wife. "Our house is not on fire." And to prove it, he said, he would make the drive from Waldorf to Hunters Brooke and call her back with the good news. A little while later, the phone rang. But the news was not good.

An arson attack on Hunters Brooke destroyed 10 new homes and damaged 16 more. Film of the fire from a television helicopter showed that the Hightower house was still standing. But the Hightowers have not been able to tell whether it's just a burned-out shell.

"We thought we'd found our ideal home," Jacque told me. "It was secluded, private. . . . Good investment. Quiet. We both work in the city and this was like going to the country to wind down and raise a family."

The couple had been waiting for nearly two years for today. They have been especially eager since April, when they sold their townhouse in White Plains and moved into a nearby townhouse with Dawn's brother, his wife and their two children. Suddenly, life went from crowded to way too crowded.

For now, they'll just have to stay put.

More than 100 firefighters, along with agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, swarmed the Hightowers' burning paradise. Arson investigators speculated that the culprits were radical environmentalists concerned that the housing development would destroy valuable wetlands.

Jacque said he read in a newspaper yesterday that someone had seen a racial slur written on one of the damaged houses, prompting concerns that a hate crime had been committed. Most of the people who have purchased homes in Hunters Brooke are African American.

"Regardless of which group is responsible, the huge question for me is, Who's to say they won't come back and do it again?" Jacque said.

His daughters, of course, expect him to have all the answers.

"My oldest, the 12-year-old, is kind of sad and disappointed," he said. "She was looking forward to having her own room and telephone, like any seventh-grader. The 3-year-old saw us jump up when the fire story came on television. She's been asking, 'Daddy, is my house on fire?' 'Daddy, did they burn my room?' I tell both of my girls: 'It's going to be okay. Daddy is going to buy us another house.' Then I try to change the subject."

That tactic seems to work. But it doesn't keep the girls from asking questions. One that the younger girl posed at bedtime Monday night still haunts him: "Daddy, who burned it?"

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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