Investigators Declare Fire Was Arson

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 5, 2007

An early morning fire at a day-labor center near Gaithersburg yesterday was arson, Montgomery County investigators said, causing little damage but raising concerns about anti-immigrant sentiment.

County fire investigators said that shortly before 6 a.m., someone used an ignitable liquid to start the fire at the double-wide trailer at the temporary worker center that opened last month on Crabbs Branch Way.

Department spokesman Pete Piringer said that by the time firefighters arrived, the blaze had been extinguished. He estimated damage at $2,000.

Investigators did not know whether the blaze was set by someone who opposed the worker center, which has generated controversy among residents and groups that oppose illegal immigration. But representatives from Casa of Maryland, which runs the center, said they were certain this was sabotage.

"We see this as a natural consequence to the ongoing debate over immigration,'' said Christy Swanson, program director for Casa of Maryland. "We also consider it a hate crime.''

Swanson said her group has received phone calls and e-mails from people who oppose the center but there were no specific threats that hinted at yesterday's fire.

Patrick Lacefield, spokesman for the county, said he spoke to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who called the incident "shameful and despicable."

"Some people disagree with the policy and they have a right to, but obviously this crosses the line,'' Lacefield said.

Representatives from two groups that oppose the center said they had nothing to do with the blaze. "There is no one with any affiliation to our group that would do anything like this,'' said Stephen Schreiman, state director of the Maryland Minutemen.

Brad Botwin, director of, reiterated his belief that the center be shut down and suggested the fire might have been started by one of the workers.

"We don't know who these workers are," he said. They could have done this."

By noon, the damage from the fire, which was discovered by a staff member, was largely erased. County workers moved quickly to repair a charred floorboard near the door of the trailer. But there were still signs that something was amiss. A darkened trail, evidence of the accelerant that investigators believed was used to fuel the fire, extended from the sidewalk to the steps of the trailer.

With the trailer closed, a dozen workers stood in the parking lot waiting for work.

The day-labor center opened with little protest April 16, despite several years of controversy over where it should be established.

Even though the county operates two other day-labor centers -- in Wheaton and Silver Spring -- its plans to open a Gaithersburg site drew protest from some community members and anti-immigration groups. The Montgomery County Council had allocated money in 2005 for the center to be opened in Gaithersburg, but city officials never found a suitable site.

Anyone with information about the blaze is asked to call fire officials at 240-777-2263.

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