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Fire in NE Has Marks Of Serial Arsonist

Woman, 69, Suffers Burn on Wrist in Blaze That Damages Home

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 11, 2004; Page B01

A serial arsonist appears to be responsible for a fire at a Northeast Washington home early yesterday, the second such attack in a week and the 45th since the blazes began in early 2003, authorities said.

A 69-year-old woman, who reported hearing the arsonist walk across her porch moments before the fire started, suffered a burn to her wrist. Her companion escaped unharmed.

Gene Richardson inspects his home in Northeast after it was set ablaze yesterday. Damage included a hole in the roof and shattered windows. (Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

Federal agents and local fire officials said the blaze was similar to others linked to the serial arsonist, who has set fires early in the morning and just outside residences. One person has died, and more than a dozen people have suffered injuries in the attacks.

Yesterday's fire started about 4:55 a.m. in front of a single-story home in the 3000 block of Yost Place NE, a residential street off Bladensburg Road. Law enforcement officials said an accelerant was used to ignite the front of the house, fitting the pattern of the other cases under investigation.

Agents described the neighborhoods surrounding yesterday's fire as a "hot zone" of activity by the arsonist, with four fires occurring within a six-block radius. The fire was less than a half-mile from the site of the one that killed Lou Edna Jones, 86, in June 2003.

Mary Johnson, who owns the house set ablaze yesterday, said she got up at her usual time and started making coffee in her kitchen when she heard a thud on her front porch.

She said she thought somebody was tampering with her window-mounted air conditioner, so she alerted her companion, Gene Richardson, 63. When Richardson looked outside the front window, he said, he saw a "wall of flame."

The couple attempted to flee out the front door but were stopped by flames. Johnson burned her right wrist while trying to douse the fire with a jug of water. Then she tried to dial 911 but was too scared to concentrate, she said. She and Richardson finally escaped by rushing out a back door.

While Johnson scaled a fence to alert neighbors, Richardson grabbed a garden hose. He rushed around to the front of the house, where he tried to stop the fast-spreading fire, first on his own and then with help from a neighbor.

By the time firefighters arrived, the flames seemed to be out, said the neighbor, Joseph Henry. But the blaze erupted again, apparently after smoldering in the basement and in insulation.

"They really need to catch this guy," said Henry, 36. "It's just ugly."

Johnson and Richardson said they were aware of the arsons -- which have taken place since March 2003 in the District, Maryland and Virginia -- but never thought their home would be a target.

"I'm just hurt, scared and nervous," said Johnson, as she worked with an American Red Cross official to arrange temporary housing.

It was not clear how long the house will be off-limits. There is a hole in the roof, the front windows were smashed, and charred clothing, furniture and other possessions sat in a heap in the front yard.

Law enforcement officials said they had no suspects. Authorities speculated that the arsonist could be driven by publicity and might have felt upstaged by arsons set Monday in Charles County. Those fires destroyed or damaged more than two dozen unoccupied homes in a new subdivision and generated national media attention.

The next day, the serial arsonist struck in the stairwell of an apartment building in Bladensburg -- the assailant's first attack since late September.

Outside experts agreed that the serial arsonist might have felt upstaged.

"He was the show in the area until the big one came," said Michael A. Schlatman, president of the International Association of Arson Investigators. "He went silent for awhile. Then, he strikes, a day after big one, and then immediately thereafter. He may be wanting to get some more attention."

Investigators have conclusively linked 14 fires and one attempted arson. The other 31 fires are described as being similar in nature. Despite gathering forensic evidence and clues at many of the fire scenes, law enforcement officials said it will probably take a tip from the public to make an arrest.

"We're hoping that somebody saw something," said John P. Malone, special agent in charge of the Washington Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is part of a task force investigating the arsons.

Malone urged anyone with information to call investigators at 301-77-ARSON.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company