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Intensive Legwork Begins in Md. Arson

Owners Hope to View Damaged Homes Soon

By Jamie Stockwell and Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page C01

Investigators studied evidence yesterday from the fire-damaged Hunters Brooke development in western Charles County, following leads and interviewing potential witnesses, officials said.

There is still no indication that any particular group is behind what fire officials have called the biggest residential arson in state history.

"This is where the heavy-duty legwork begins," said Mike Campbell, spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "This is the heart of the investigation. It's the part of the investigation they don't show on television. The evidence has been collected, and so now investigators go out, beat the bushes and chase leads."

Investigators had not found a blue van that was seen leaving the neighborhood by some firefighters who were among the first to respond to the fast-moving blazes early Monday, Campbell said.

No suspects have been identified, Campbell said, but investigators -- including federal arson experts and members of an anti-terrorism task force -- are optimistic they will determine who the arsonist was.

Hunters Brooke homeowners remained barred from their damaged houses yesterday. Jacque and Dawn Hightower stood on their street, 30 feet from their dream house, trying to see inside.

"All of our windows are busted out," Jacque Hightower said, describing over the telephone what he could see from the cul-de-sac.

The screens were blown out, too, and he and his wife worried because the "columns that separate the living room from the dining room . . . they're all black."

The fires caused an estimated $10 million in damage, destroying 10 unoccupied homes and damaging 16 others. Construction had not started on most of the houses in the planned 319-home development.

Hours after the fires, a few residents and many of their soon-to-be neighbors huddled at the bottom of a steep hill. They shared stories and rumors, getting to know one another while surrounded by sirens, television crews and drizzle.

Despite a persistent drizzle, homeowners gathered again yesterday, waiting for more information in a neighborhood that some, though they haven't moved in yet, said they already feel is theirs.

Hightower said he understood that the builders were cataloguing damage reports. Once that work was finished, he said, "we can get in and look in at [our] home." He said he was told that the builders are expected to make appointments Tuesday to give affected homeowners a tour of the inside of their houses and set a new timeline for move-in dates.

Hightower didn't know what to expect, but he said he imagined the builders telling people, "You can move in in a month or 12 months or whatever."

In the county, which is predominantly white, many families who bought homes in the subdivision are black. Many of them work for the State Department, the military, the Internal Revenue Service and other federal agencies -- and had saved enough to buy the houses.

Some said in interviews last week that they knew there had been opposition to the construction site, which is near a 6.5-acre wetlands area that contains rare species of plants and insects. But they said they thought that issue had been resolved in court. Some said they also heard rumors that the fires might have been racially motivated.

Campbell said there is no evidence to indicate that environmental activists or a hate group was responsible for the arson.

Hightower said the visit to his future home was fruitful but frustrating. "We know a little more but not too much more," he said, adding that he was turning his hopes toward this week.

Officials, too, hope the $82,000 reward will generate more leads. Those with information can call 800-492-TIPS.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company