Authorities investigating last week's arsons that destroyed 10 unoccupied new homes in Charles County are leaning away from eco-terrorism as a possible motive and are focusing more on people who had routine access to the work site, law enforcement sources familiar with the case said yesterday.
Investigators also have identified the types of liquid accelerants that they believe were used to start the fires at the Hunters Brooke subdivision, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the probe is continuing. They described the flammable liquids as two kinds of cleaning solvents, one of which is used for metal.
Md. Arson: Ten homes were destroyed and 16 damaged, resulting in an estimated $10 million in destruction to the new subdivision.
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It was unclear what specific types of solvents were used.
Arson experts not involved in the investigation have said in interviews that automobile degreasers often contain flammable petroleum distillates and sometimes are used in arsons. "We have seen them used before, but not often," said Lt. Tim Hattwick, a veteran fire and arson investigator with the Prince William County fire department.
Degreasers and other flammable cleaning solvents are readily available at specialty stores, experts noted. Investigators in Charles County have said they also found the containers used to carry the flammable liquids at the scene.
Most officials declined yesterday to comment on the progress of the investigation. "I'm confident the task force will solve it," said Kevin Perkins, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore office. "But I don't want to put a time frame on it."
Meanwhile yesterday, several homeowners learned that they will have to wait months longer than expected before they can move into their homes.
"I don't know what we're going to do now," said Jacque Hightower, who learned from the developer that he will not be able to move in until April.
Hightower, 32, a training officer at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, was supposed to move into a five-bedroom house with his wife, Dawn, and their two children, ages 12 and 3, Dec. 8. But fire damaged the home, melting exterior siding and leaving portions inside black with smoke.
Marshall Ames, a vice president with Miami-based Lennar Corp., the developer of the 319-home subdivision near Indian Head, said the company is still assessing the damage to the houses. He said he could not estimate how long it will take to repair all the damage.
Investigators initially had focused on eco-terrorism because the Hunters Brooke subdivision was built near an environmentally sensitive bog and has been the focus of a dispute between environmentalists and regulators who allowed the subdivision to begin.
Environmental extremists involved in similar disputes across the country have used arson as a protest tool and then claimed responsibility for their fires. As of yesterday, no one had issued such a claim in the Dec. 6 fires.
Besides destroying 10 unoccupied houses, the fires damaged 16 others, causing an estimated $10 million in damage. Authorities said whoever committed the arsons also tried to set fire to 10 other houses, but they did not burn.
The fires broke out before dawn. W. Faron Taylor, the deputy state fire marshal, said investigators had interviewed more than 150 people about the arson, including neighbors, firefighters, security guards and construction workers.
Staff writer Michael E. Ruane contributed to this report.