An early morning arson fire that damaged four unoccupied townhouses could be the work of a group of radical environmentalists, the FBI and the city's fire chief said Monday.
An anonymous e-mail sent to news organizations said the fire had been started by the Earth Liberation Front, a loosely organized group that has used economic sabotage -- most often arson -- to further its goal of protecting the environment. The FBI, which is assisting the Hagerstown Fire Department, considers the group one of the country's most dangerous domestic terrorist organizations.
The single-alarm fire early Sunday at the Hagers Crossing development of townhouses and single-family houses destroyed one townhouse and damaged three others, Fire Chief Gary R. Hawbaker said. The fire was contained immediately, and no one was hurt, he added.
The e-mail said that the goal of the arson was "to strike at the bottom line" of Ryan Homes, one of the developers of Hagers Crossing. "We warn all developers that the people of the Earth are prepared to defend what remains of the wild and the green," the e-mail continued.
Hawbaker estimated that the fire caused $300,000 of damage. Hagers Crossing is to contain 940 units, said Shelby Daniels, a sales and marketing representative for Ryan Homes. The townhouse prices start at $250,000. Daniels and Hawbaker said there had been nothing particularly controversial about the project, which opened its first homes in 2003.
Assistant Fire Marshal Doug DeHaven, the department's chief investigator, examined the site Monday as construction continued. The destroyed townhouse was reduced to a heap of charred debris and the faint smell of burnt wood. Metal pipes, still intact, poked out of the ground. Neighboring townhouses in the linked set of four -- one wrapped in Tyvek -- appeared undamaged on the outside.
Hawbaker said the department had identified no suspect but had gathered physical evidence from the scene. He would not describe the evidence, saying that could slow the investigation. Also, he would not say how the fires, one in each house, were started.
As for the e-mail, "We're looking at this as any other lead we might have," Hawbaker said. "It's just a normal investigation."
He said he had notified the FBI and had spoken to Charles County authorities, who are investigating an arson attack that destroyed or damaged two dozen homes in December. Investigators there originally suspected environmental terrorists but eventually linked the crime to a group of local men, some allegedly motivated by racial prejudice.
If the Hagerstown fire was started by the environmental group, it would be the first time the organization had struck in Maryland, said Special Agent Barry Maddox, spokesman for the FBI's Baltimore field office.
The Earth Liberation Front, founded in 1992, has been far more active on the West Coast. Its Web site describes the group as "an underground movement with no public leadership, membership or spokesperson."
Maddox said it was too soon to draw a firm conclusion one way or the other. "It's still very early right now," he said. "To specifically comment on a potential suspect would certainly be premature."
Hawbaker said the department learned about the e-mail from a reporter for the Hagerstown Herald-Mail. The e-mail was provided to The Washington Post by Christopher Law, a reporter with the National Security News Service. Law said he had received word from ELF saying the group took responsibility for the arson. Law, who said he was not a spokesman for the group and had no involvement with ELF, said he could not be certain the claim was legitimate.
Asked why he had forwarded the e-mail, Law said, "I felt people should know why it happened."
The person whose e-mail address appeared on the letter to Law did not respond to e-mailed questions from a Post reporter.
The brief e-mail, which encouraged others to join the group's resistance, contained two allusions to J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" books. The sender's address contained the name Treebeard, after the leader of the treelike beings called Ents. In the books, Treebeard watches his friends in the forest being destroyed by the forces of darkness.
The e-mail closed by quoting the ancient, talking tree, after he had seen enough:
"The Ents are going to war."
Staff writer Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.