Three Receive Prison Terms in Charles Arsons

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer

Almost a year to the day after a series of arson fires devastated a Charles County housing development, a federal judge handed down a stiff sentence yesterday of nearly 20 years to the Fort Washington man who planned the crime.

U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus also sentenced two other men who pleaded guilty to helping set the fires in the Hunters Brooke housing development in Indian Head: Security guard Aaron L. Speed, 22, was ordered to serve more than eight years and firefighter trainee Jeremy D. Parady, 21, more than seven years.

Dawn Hightower, left, chatting with Beverly Rowe outside the courthouse, told the court about the racially tinged arsons' effects on her daughter.
Dawn Hightower, left, chatting with Beverly Rowe outside the courthouse, told the court about the racially tinged arsons' effects on her daughter. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

He reserved the toughest penalty for Patrick S. Walsh, 21, ringleader of the group of Southern Maryland men who swept through a subdivision still under construction and set the fires that destroyed 12 new, unoccupied homes and damaged 15 others. The fires, set before dawn a year ago today, were Maryland's biggest residential arson in memory.

Authorities originally estimated the damage at $10 million but later revised that figure to about $3.2 million. Each of the men sentenced yesterday was ordered to pay toward that amount in restitution.

Beyond the physical costs, though, Titus said the arsons had caused "incalculable damage" to race relations in the community. Many owners of the new homes are African Americans, while the perpetrators are white men, one of whom cited racial motivations.

"It's very frustrating to be a lifelong resident of Maryland to know this happened in my state," Titus said. "For those who think that somehow the color of somebody's skin makes them inferior, get over it."

Three residents of Hunters Brooke, each of whom is African American, told Titus during yesterday's hearings that the arsons have profoundly affected them. Two owned homes that were destroyed but have been rebuilt.

Derrick Potts, 34, a D.C. police officer, and his daughter and two sons were the only people living in the section of Hunters Brooke that was targeted. Potts said he drove his children and himself to safety past burning homes and through falling ash.

"I thought maybe it was a movie. I was waiting for someone to yell, 'Cut,' " Potts said.

Now, every time he drives through the housing development, Potts said, he keeps his service weapon on his lap.

Dawn Hightower, 32, said schoolmates tell her young daughter that she lives in a neighborhood where people will burn down her house or string her up because she's black.

Titus sentenced Walsh to 19 years and seven months in prison. Under federal sentencing guidelines, Titus could have sentenced him to as little as 11 years. Titus said he lengthened Walsh's sentence in part because of the "horrific" nature of the crime.

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