Patrick S. Walsh had hoped that his gang "would run things" in Charles County, that its members would watch out for each other and be feared by everyone else, a prosecutor told a jury in federal court Wednesday.

And yet, Assistant U.S. Attorney Donna Sanger said at the start of trial in one of the largest arsons in state history, the gang -- variously called the Family, the Unseen Cavaliers or, simply, the Unseen -- was not being accorded the respect that Walsh believed it was due.

Walsh, she said, hatched a plan. Before dawn Dec. 6, she said, he and others fanned out across Hunters Brooke, a predominantly African American subdivision under construction in Indian Head, about 30 miles south of Washington. They kicked down doors, splashed accelerants in unoccupied houses and set blazes that were intended to reduce the subdivision to ashes and solidify the gang's reputation, she said.

"He hoped it would make a name for himself and for the Family," Sanger said. "The trick was to have it known among his peers [who was responsible] but to not get caught."

Walsh, 21, and five other men were soon charged with arson and conspiracy. Two have pleaded guilty, and charges against a third have been dropped.

A variety of motives has been suggested; of the men who have pleaded guilty, one confessed that he was driven by racial hostility, the other by anger toward the company that provided security at the development. But Sanger's opening remarks made clear that a desire for recognition is the motive the government has ascribed to Walsh. His case, the first to go to trial, will provide the first in-depth look at the evidence amassed during an investigation that drew on the resources of numerous law enforcement agencies.

Yet, Walsh's attorney told the jury, the investigation yielded no physical evidence pointing to his client's guilt. William B. Purpura said that neither DNA nor fingerprints will tie Walsh to the crime.

On the contrary, he said, the forensic evidence will support Walsh's contention that he was at home and on his computer when fire swept through the subdivision.

Purpura called Aaron L. Speed, a former security guard who pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate, a "confessed arsonist" who "is going to define what a liar is." Purpura said the other man who pleaded guilty, Jeremy Parady, "lied for an hour under oath" during a pretrial hearing before the same judge. Judge Roger W. Titus concluded at the time that Parady's testimony was "overtly manufactured."

Purpura urged jurors not to be swayed by what he said were "red herrings" meant to suggest guilt without proving it: a copy of "The Anarchist Cookbook," a once-popular countercultural volume, found in Walsh's possession; incendiary powder found in the house Walsh shared with his parents; and Walsh's alleged involvement in an earlier incident in which a field was set aflame.

The Unseen Cavaliers, Purpura said, constituted "the biggest red herring of them all." The group, he said, consisted merely of "boys and girls, African Americans and whites, [of] approximately his age," who lived in Waldorf and shared an interest in street racing. "It's illegal to street-race, but that's what they do," he said.

The fires at Hunters Brooke, which fueled a perception that racial hostility persists in Charles County, destroyed 12 unoccupied houses and damaged 15 others. The discovery of accelerants in 11 additional homes indicated that the arsonists intended the path of destruction to be wider still, Sanger said in her opening remarks.

The prosecution's first witness was Terri Rookard, a government employee who moved into Hunters Brooke with her family four days before the fires.

Rookard said her eldest son, 15, ran into the room where she was sleeping, saying the house across the street was on fire. They ran to another window and, looking out, saw that "fire was everywhere."

As they fled in two cars, she said, fire seemed to pursue them, jumping from house to house. "We didn't know if we would make it out," she said.