Testing This Headline

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2005; 12:00 AM

The serial arsonist who has targeted homes and apartments in the Washington region the past two years is using a simple device that bursts into flames up to 25 minutes after it is lit, allowing time to escape before the crime is detected, law enforcement authorities said.

The time delay is one reason why no victims have seen the person believed responsible for 44 early-morning fires since March 2003, authorities said. Despite stakeouts, surveillance and the offer of a reward, no one has been arrested in the fires, in which one person died and several were injured.

In a series of recent interviews, law enforcement officials provided the most complete picture yet of the arsonist's activities, revealing new details about the investigation and discussing the frustration faced by the task force investigating the crimes. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the probe is continuing.

Investigators have recovered DNA evidence from two crime scenes in the District and one in Maryland and determined that they came from the same unknown man, officials said. They also recovered a fingerprint from a bag at one fire, although they cautioned that it is not necessarily from the arsonist.

Authorities have trailed potential suspects, sometimes using high-tech monitoring equipment placed on the targets' cars. They have crisscrossed neighborhoods where the arsonist is most prone to strike, hoping to catch him in action.

Experts conducted about two dozen "test burns" to replicate the arsonist's work and timing. The arsonist typically sneaks onto a front porch, officials said, carrying a plastic shopping bag that hides the fire-setting device: a plastic water or juice jug filled with gasoline and stuffed with a cloth wick. Once the wick is lighted, it takes as long as 25 minutes for the jug to melt and spill its flaming contents.

The task force has traced some of the half-burned and damaged jugs and bags to certain types of stores, officials said. That led investigators to painstakingly mark the bottoms of thousands of jugs at a Northern Virginia distribution warehouse, hoping they might later be able to link one that was used in a fire to the store where it was bought. They stopped the practice when none of the marked jugs turned up at fires, officials said.

John P. Malone, special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Washington field division, would not confirm details about the arsons or the investigations. But he said agents and investigators have done everything possible to make an arrest. ATF is leading the 25-member task force, which includes fire investigators and police from jurisdictions throughout the area.

"We have not solved this for lack of investigative ingenuity," Malone said. "This guy is crafty and calculating. He's been doing this for a period of time. He has a system down, and we haven't been able to get into that system."

Officials have offered a $35,000 reward and pleaded with the public for help, saying that a tip provides the best chance to solve the case. They said they plan to raise the reward to $100,000 in hopes of generating new leads to their hotline, 301-77-ARSON.

Authorities have conclusively linked 14 fires and one attempted arson. They believe the same person is responsible for as many as 30 others at houses and apartment buildings in the District, Maryland and Virginia. One of those tentatively connected blazes, in June 2003 in Northeast Washington, killed Lou Edna Jones, 86.

All the fires have been on porches or sides of houses and apartment buildings.

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