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.
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.
"This is someone who must be put away to protect the public for a considerable time," Titus said.
On Sept. 2, a federal jury in Baltimore convicted Walsh, a former amusement park worker, of 35 counts of arson and one count of conspiracy to commit arson.
During his trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Donna C. Sanger said Walsh led a Charles County gang called the Family and planned the fires to make a name for the group.
Speed, who worked as a security guard at Hunters Brooke, pleaded guilty in June to conspiracy to commit arson. Speed said he was angry at his employer and resented the affluent, educated people who were moving into Hunters Brooke.
Speed, of Waldorf, admitted that he helped set the fires after encouraging a fellow security guard on duty that morning to leave early. Titus sentenced Speed to eight years and four months in prison.
Parady, of Accokeek, pleaded guilty in April to one count of conspiracy to commit arson. Parady, a former probationary member of the Accokeek Volunteer Fire Department, admitted that he drove a vehicle from house to house to light the fires.
In a statement submitted as part of his plea agreement, Parady said the housing development was targeted "because he knew or perceived that many of the purchasers of the houses in that development were African American."
Titus sentenced Parady to seven years and three months in prison. Speed and Parady have a history of mental health problems, prosecutors and defense attorneys said.
Two remaining co-defendants -- Roy T. McCann, 23, and Michael M. Everhart, 21 -- are scheduled to go to trial Feb. 21.
Walsh declined to speak during his sentencing at federal courthouse in Greenbelt. Parady apologized to his victims, firefighters who battled the blazes and his family and friends. He said his participation in the arsons was "a completely childish and foolish mistake."
Speed also apologized, saying, "The situation that happened isn't like me."
Thanks to law enforcement officials, Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said, "justice will be done; the victims will rebuild their homes while the perpetrators spend many years in federal prison."
Insurers for the developer of Hunters Brooke have filed a federal civil lawsuit against the private security firm that employed Speed, accusing the firm of negligence and breach of contract for failing to properly screen and train its officers.