Fire investigators said yesterday that the arsonists who set fire to more than a dozen unoccupied houses in Charles County on Monday tried to torch 11 other houses in the subdivision.
Officials released a lot-by-lot account of the pre-dawn incident that showed arson fires were set or attempted in 30 structures along four streets of the Hunters Brooke subdivision near the Southern Maryland community of Indian Head.
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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A Developing Discomfort (The Washington Post, Dec 9, 2004)
At Site of Mass Md. Arson, Families Wait and Worry (The Washington Post, Dec 8, 2004)
No Motive Found in Charles Arsons (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)
Along one street, Cabinwood Court, fires were started or attempted in almost every house, according to investigators. Vacant lots and lots with only foundations were skipped, along with the street's lone occupied house and two vacant houses nearby.
Investigators said the arson attempts probably failed because the accelerant did not light or the arsonists lacked the time to ignite all 30 houses. The crimes were so extensive that they probably were the work of more than one person, officials said yesterday.
Investigators have come up with what could be crucial evidence: At the scene, they found several containers of a liquid that might be the accelerant used to start the fires. Authorities said the containers and their contents were being analyzed.
"It goes in this investigator's favor," W. Faron Taylor, Maryland's deputy fire marshal, said of the information gleaned at the scene. "It certainly enhances our ability to solve this crime."
In many cases, arsons are difficult to investigate because clues are burned in the fire.
As a task force of federal, state and local law enforcement officers continued the investigation, Charles County officials expressed outrage yesterday and announced that they were offering an $82,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest. About $57,000 of the reward money came from the local business community.
"We will not tolerate this type of activity," said Board of Commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large). "We felt as if the county's been attacked."
Taylor said that 10 houses were destroyed and 16 others damaged. Among the 26 houses affected, 19 were set on fire and seven were exposed to flames from other houses. The damage has been estimated at $10 million.
Scott Creelman, chief of the Potomac Heights Volunteer Fire Department, among the first departments on the scene Monday, said three houses were on fire when he arrived shortly after 5 a.m. The three blazes, he said, were all in a row on Cabinwood Court, starting near the intersection with Hunters Brooke Drive. Shortly after, other fires began popping up across the subdivision, he said.
"After the first three, it started skipping around," he said. "Around the corner, one would ignite . . . then another one and another one."
Authorities said they have been unable to discern a motive.
Hunters Brooke, near an environmentally sensitive bog, has been the focus of a dispute between environmentalists and regulators who allowed the subdivision to be built. But officials declined to say whether they suspect that the arsons were an act of eco-terrorism or there was some other motive.