Frederick authorities yesterday recovered a body believed to be that of a man who they say shot at police and started a fire that gutted a shopping plaza Monday.
The body, which was found about 12:30 p.m. behind the locked front door in the rubble of a destroyed liquor store at the Frederick shopping center, has been sent to the chief medical examiner's office in Baltimore for identification.
Frederick police were still trying to piece together how James Douglas's visit to a liquor store ended up in an inferno that destroyed the Antietam Village Center.
Police say Douglas, 30, of Frederick, walked into Jim's Liquors at the shopping plaza on Oppossumtown Pike about 12:30 p.m. Monday, showed the owner a handgun and ordered him out of the store.
When two officers pulled up, Douglas fired at least one shot at them through the store's glass door, police said. "They were approaching the business and they heard two shots," said Lt. Thomas Chase, a spokesman for Frederick police. "One came through the window and they heard it go past."
About 1:45 p.m., smoke was spotted coming from the liquor store. Police said they think boxes of liquor were ignited to start the blaze, and the alcohol acted as an accelerant. The fire soon spread to the adjoining stores, destroying a bank, a coffee shop, a sandwich shop, a medical supply store, a hair salon and a dry cleaner. "It was quick and it was massive," said Chase, who witnessed the fire. "Once it went to the rafters, it was gone."
Police initially characterized the incident as an attempted armed robbery, based on the first calls for assistance to the liquor store, but they said they are unsure what actually happened.
"That's part of the investigation, to find out if it was a robbery or something else," Chase said. "It's much too early to draw any conclusions."
As of yesterday evening, no weapon had been found in the rubble. "We're still looking for the handgun," Chase said.
Yesterday afternoon, fire marshals, police detectives and construction workers moved through the blackened remains of the plaza. A yellow excavator picked out pieces of debris. Large red dumpsters had been set up in front of the liquor store to block the view of the recovery operation.
Shortly after the body was discovered, a group of Douglas's relatives stood on the sidewalk just outside a chain-link fence erected around the site, staring forlornly at the recovery operation. "Just let us grieve in peace," one woman in the group said. A police chaplain stood with them, offering words of consolation.
Jamie Ketterman, who said she is the mother of two of Douglas's children, stood across the street, huddled in a blanket, watching as authorities prepared to remove the body. She said Douglas had been with her and the children earlier Monday. "He disappeared and came here, and that's where he stayed." Ketterman began crying and could not speak further.
Friends of Douglas's, who lived in a nearby apartment complex, gathered at the scene yesterday and angrily disputed police accounts of the incident.
Talisha Easterling, who said she and Douglas had been friends since childhood, said that she spoke to him by cellphone during the standoff and that her friend said he was not going to harm anyone.
"Tell them to leave me alone," she quoted Douglas as telling her. "I'm coming out as soon as I finish smoking a blunt."
Another friend, Britnie Bell, said she also doubted that Douglas would have shot at police and burned down the shopping center.
Chase said police repeatedly encouraged Douglas to surrender peacefully while speaking to him via cellphone during the standoff.
Chase said police fired no shots. "When we're fired upon, our first response is to seek cover," he said. "We don't fire back indiscriminately."
Court records show that Douglas was found guilty of several criminal offenses in recent years, including possession of a deadly weapon and drinking in public.
But friends described him as a friendly and well-known neighborhood figure who helped residents dig out from the recent snow. He was also a proud father, they said. "He's got five kids; they're all boys," Bell said. "How's it going to be for them not to have a father figure?"