Civil Rights Suit Filed in Arsons

Plaintiffs and lawyers appear at a news conference to announce a lawsuit against the men accused of setting the Hunters Brooke fires and the security firm that employed one of them.
Plaintiffs and lawyers appear at a news conference to announce a lawsuit against the men accused of setting the Hunters Brooke fires and the security firm that employed one of them. (Photos By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 3, 2005

Thirty-two residents of a Charles County subdivision that was torched in December have brought a federal civil rights lawsuit against the five arson suspects and a security company that employed one of them.

The lawsuit, filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, argues that the young white men accused in the Dec. 6 Hunters Brooke arsons that damaged or destroyed more than two dozen houses were motivated by a desire to keep black people from moving into the neighborhood.

The lawsuit alleges that the men violated federal and state housing discrimination laws by making the houses "unavailable" for the plaintiffs based on their race and by intentionally inflicting emotional distress. The suit also contends that the company that employed suspect Aaron Speed, Security Services of America, and its corporate parent, ABM Industries, were negligent in training and background checks.

"In setting these fires at Hunters Brooke, and trying to intimidate and stop minority families from living where they want to, where they have an absolute right to live, this group of men . . . violated federal and state civil rights laws," said Donald L. Kahl, senior counsel with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, a public interest group, which filed the suit with the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

Joshua Treem, an attorney for defendant Roy McCann in the criminal case, noted that after a lengthy investigation prosecutors did not charge any civil rights violations.

"This is grandstanding at its worst," Treem said of the suit. "I would defy the plaintiffs to come forward with any evidence that Mr. McCann did anything with racial animus in mind, let alone that he did anything at all."

Attorneys for other defendants could not be reached. Linda S. Auwers, senior vice president and general counsel for ABM Industries, said in a statement that as soon as the company heard of the allegations, it suspended the individuals involved.

"We deplore the criminal actions that took place. . . . However, none of those actions were taken by SSA employees in the course of their employment with our company," Auwers wrote.

In July, the insurer for the developer of Hunters Brooke sued the security company for negligence and breach of contract.

In the criminal case, two suspects, Speed and Jeremy D. Parady, have pleaded guilty. Parady admitted that he targeted the development because a large number of black people were buying houses there. Prosecutors, who did not pursue the case as a hate crime, have ascribed other motives to the suspects.

A third defendant, Patrick Walsh, the alleged ringleader, was convicted of arson and conspiracy. The two remaining defendants are awaiting trial.

At a news conference at Akin Gump offices yesterday, Dawn Hightower, an employee at the Department of Justice, spoke briefly of the shock of watching TV and seeing her community engulfed in flames, before she began crying and covered her face with her hand.

"I definitely feel Dawn's pain," said Beverly Rowe, a social worker who waited eight months before she could move back to Hunters Brooke. The arsons, she said, occurred on "a day when several individuals made a decision to destroy our lives."

Plaintiff Kendall Walker, a manager at PNC Bank, said he sometimes sleeps downstairs because he wants to be prepared for an intruder.

"I would like to feel safe again," Walker said.

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