When visitors to the Oxford Road town house community repeatedly parked in the residents' spaces, homeowner Shirley Webb and other community activists didn't hesitate about calling the tow trucks.
One regular visitor to the Fairfax City complex took the repeated removal of his car personally and singled out Webb, the lone African American among the group of activists, for blame, law enforcement officials said.
So on the night Jeffrey Allen Rowe was moving out of town, he used a Molotov cocktail to blow up one of Webb's cars and tried to blow up a second one car, an Alexandria federal grand jury charged in an indictment handed up yesterday.
The Oct. 31, 1998 blast melted the windshield and charred the dashboard of Webb's 1995 Hyundai Elantra and destroyed her family's piece of mind.
"We haven't been comfortable here since," said Webb's husband, Alfonzo Webb, 47. "I'm still jumping at my window, wondering what's going to happen next."
Rowe, who is white, now lives in Sylmar, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb. The 33-year-old mortgage broker could not be reached for comment and does not yet have a lawyer.
He has been charged with civil rights crimes--interfering with the Webbs' right to live in their home for racial reasons--with arson and with using fire to commit a felony.
If convicted of all three charges, Rowe would face a minimum of 15 years in prison and could get up to 40 years.
Fairfax City firefighters responded to the 4 a.m. blaze but initially attributed the fire to electrical problems, the Webbs said. The next morning Alfonzo Webb found the second, unexploded bottle filled with liquid beneath the couple's other car, a 1995 Chrysler Cirrus.
Fairfax City fire Capt. Keith Cunningham traced the beer bottle and a paper towel used as a wick to the home of one of the Webbs' neighbors, said Fairfax Chief Fire Marshall Andrew Wilson. From there, the trail led to Rowe, who regularly visited the neighbor and had made comments to and about the Webbs, Wilson said. There were fingerprints on the unexploded bottle, he said.
The neighbor has not been charged in the incident.
Since Rowe had moved out of state, the city called in the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Wilson said. The joint investigation culminated in a federal court charge because of the civil rights allegation, and because Shirley Webb, 47, uses the cars to commute across state lines to her job as a computer operator.
The Webbs said they knew the towing campaign had irritated some visitors but they were not aware that Rowe allegedly held them personally responsible.
"Other people were afraid to speak up [about the parking]. I guess I paid the price for standing up for my rights as a homeowner," said Shirley Webb. "I hate to believe it was a hate crime, but it probably was. . . . Other people were calling the tow trucks, but they weren't black."
Staff writer Tom Jackman contributed to this report.