The call from the alarm company came at 2:53 that morning in June. More vandalism, Elizabeth Houghton thought, as she picked up the phone. Then she heard the word "fire."
Leaping from bed in her pajamas, the Washington entrepreneur drove barefoot down the mountain outside Harpers Ferry and arrived as flames shot out of the massive log lodge she had rebuilt as an upscale resort.
She sprinted senselessly for a garden hose, then ran for her life as a fireball burst through the coat room window. As a light rain fell, she stood with her roommate and family members weeping and shivering, watching fire roar through the lobby with its Persian carpet and antique piano, consume the ballroom's one-ton fir beams, blast the fieldstone from the chimney and destroy three years' work and the dreams for the business.
"We kept hoping some part could be saved," Houghton, 45, said, standing in the ruins, pushing away tears with the heel of her hand. "But there was nothing anybody could do."
The West Virginia fire marshal ruled the June 19 fire that destroyed Mountain Lake Lodge an arson. The blaze, reflected in the lodge's 55-acre lake, was visible for two miles; yet, the Jefferson County sheriff said, nobody called 911.
Robbery wasn't an apparent motive: The ashes of more than $3,000 in cash were found in the lodge's till and file cabinet. The fire was preceded by months of vandalism; county and federal investigators are questioning 40 potential suspects.
Questions surrounding the fire have riven Shannondale, a picturesque burg whose proximity to the District and its suburbs has made it West Virginia's biggest subdivision. Sheriff Everett "Ed" Boober doesn't rule out that the fire was an isolated incident, the work of a lone sociopath or a band of drugged-out youths.
But his detectives are exploring other possible motives, such as jealousy of Houghton's wealthy pedigree, anger at her exclusive policies or concerns about her plans for the lodge. Some local officials and residents worry that the fire was, in a larger sense, an attack on the newcomers who are forcing change and breeding resentment in the state's fastest-growing county.
"Until justice is served here, there's going to be a great deal of nervousness on everyone's part," said Jim Ruland, a former county commissioner who has lived in Shannondale since 1991.
"We're not ready to invest a whole lot more until we've rooted out the evil that's here."
Shannondale sprang up in 1955, a weekend community of modest cabins built on a largely uninhabited mountainside just across the Blue Ridge in West Virginia's eastern panhandle.
As the community grew, ultimately to 3,300 property owners, its developer collected membership fees. The money was used to dig a deep lake and build and maintain a stone-and-timber lodge, an adjacent swimming pool, tennis courts and a bathhouse. Scarcely a weekend passed without a dance or party, swimming contest or fishing derby at the lodge.
By the 1970s, older residents began to die off or become less involved. Cabins were sold, some to natives in search of affordable housing, others to newcomers working in fast-growing Loudoun and Frederick counties next door or in Washington, 90 minutes away.
The full-time residents used the lodge less often, and disputes soon arose over membership and maintenance fees. The lodge was sold to a small group of residents, who ran it as a not-for-profit that many came to view as a community center.
"Except for one year, we were always in the hole," said Sandra Cookson, one of the board members.
Meanwhile, Jefferson County's population exploded, increasing 17 percent to 43,000 between 1990 and 2000. It has grown by an estimated 10 percent since. Schools and police services are stretched. Drug use, vandalism, break-ins and robberies have surged.
The sprawling county, Ruland said, "lacks cohesion. There are a lot of differing interests, even inside of Shannondale."
One weekend in the late 1990s, Elizabeth Houghton drove out from Georgetown and found the vacation home community she'd been seeking for years.
"The lodge, the lake, the mountains were absolutely gorgeous. . . . I fell in love with the place," said Houghton, who owns an events planning business in the District and Reston.
Returning to Washington, she described Shannondale to her mother, Myrna "M.J." Firestone, an affluent denizen of Georgetown and Middleburg who was previously married to Firestone Tire & Rubber heir Russell Firestone Jr., and her aunt, Joan O'Dell, a Washington-based lawyer and M.J. Firestone's sister.
All three women bought homes on the mountain and cabins to rent to tourists. They were clearly cut from different cloth -- Firestone's silver Mercedes-Benz roadster and her tiny dog, a Shih Tzu, raised eyebrows among other owners.
But the women were welcomed by some old-timers running the lodge, who in 1999 came to Houghton with a problem: Unless they found a buyer, the lodge would be repossessed.
They put out a request for proposals. Houghton made the winning bid, and with the bank breathing down its neck, the group sold the lodge to her. In a series of transactions, she paid about $1.2 million for 70 acres, including the lodge, the 55-acre lake and several parcels of land.
Even before the deal closed, Houghton, her friend and roommate Jami Kempf, Firestone and O'Dell went to work on the rundown lodge, renovating it to resemble those found in the Adirondack resorts of the 1920s.
In May 2000, the new Mountain Lake Lodge opened to the public. Its furniture was mostly handmade or antique: A new bar was fashioned of walnut and willow twigs gathered in nearby forests. Suspended ceilings had been removed, exposing elegant wooden beams. Pewter-framed prints and costly ceramic tiles decorated the ladies' room. The lodge boasted a waterside restaurant and pub and an Orvis outfitter.
Many Shannondale residents said they were grateful to Houghton for "saving" their old gathering place. Some donated paintings and hunting trophies to hang in the refurbished lobby. "She is a breath of fresh air," said Nat Hughes, 75, chief of Shannondale's volunteer safety patrol. "She was making all the right moves."
Others didn't think so. As Houghton courted corporate clients and big-spending patrons for cabin rentals, weddings and lavish events, some locals complained about the lodge's prices and exclusivity.
"She could be extremely condescending and arrogant and dictatorial," said Tony Rosati, who refused to buy a membership for his lakeside home. "She was more interested in . . . congressmen from Washington, not the blue-collar guy or middle manager who lives in the community."
To comply with insurance requirements and maintain the club's atmosphere, Houghton enforced old rules on lake access that had been ignored for years. She fenced off a concrete-topped area near the lake that was a hangout for teenagers and banned fishing, boating and swimming to all but lodge members and cabin or boat renters.
Annual memberships ranged from $400 to $800 for a family, plus a $300 initiation fee. Boat rental cost $60 daily.
Within weeks, the lakefront fence was torn out of the ground. Houghton replaced it, and a month later, vandals drove a stolen car through it. Signs for the lodge disappeared or were torched. Posters promoting events were torn down or defaced.
One morning, Kempf found the lock on the lodge's electrical box broken and the breaker for the restaurant's freezer turned off.
And one night in the lodge, a woman jabbed her lighted cigarette dangerously close to Houghton's eye, asking, " 'Who do you think you are?' " Houghton recalled.
In conversation, and graffiti scrawled on posters and the post office wall, local residents spread rumors that Houghton intended to turn the lodge into a gay club. Houghton said that was never her intention. She also said her tormentors resented the fact that a woman bought the lodge. "If I'd been a man, they wouldn't have had the guts to do this," she said.
Despite the problems, by this year, Mountain Lake "was finally making money," Houghton said. She booked her first $10,000 wedding, scheduled for fall. An Easter brunch drew 250; attendance at the Father's Day brunch, the last event before the fire, was 189, more than double the previous year's showing.
The day before the blaze, Firestone said she remembers putting the finishing touches on the landscaping, moving a fern with four-foot fronds to just the right place on the restaurant porch. The family members were in good spirits. The work on the lodge was finished, and they were hoping for a prosperous season.
They next saw each other in the light of the flames, the flower beds churned up, the trees singed from the heat. It took four hours to put out the blaze. This year's wet spring kept the fire from spreading to the mountain. Regardless, it fanned the fears and prejudices of a region in flux.
At Weber's general store down the mountain, in the local newspaper and on community Web sites, some residents speculated that Houghton set the fire for the insurance money or brought her misfortunes on herself. "She turned off so many people up here, it could have been almost anybody," said store owner Bill Weber.
Others stood by Houghton, raising more than $20,000 in reward money for information leading to the arsonist. Daniel Kaseman, a Loudoun County entrepreneur with a house on the lake, was a big contributor. "I'm 47, and I've never seen an act so horrific and callous," he said. "If these people continue, they're going to end up killing somebody."
Houghton, too, said she fears for her safety. Many have encouraged her to rebuild, but she said she can't think about that. The loss is $1.5 million without furnishings, but the lodge's construction was so unique that insurance won't cover its replacement, she said.
"I've been an entrepreneur all my life, and I've always won," she said. "I just never dreamed I would be taken down in this way."
Last Wednesday, about 50 Shannondale residents met in the lodge bathhouse for a potluck dinner and a discussion on how to protect themselves. Sheriff Boober, himself a D.C. transplant, updated them on the investigation.
Test results on evidence collected by agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives haven't been released.
Meanwhile, ATF agents and sheriff's deputies are working their way down the list of potential suspects. It's slow going, Boober told the group, partly because the force is stretched so thin and partly because nobody seems to have seen much.
He said he doesn't doubt for a minute that simple resentment could have inspired such a crime.
"Yeah, because it happened," Boober said after the meeting, glancing at the crowd. "There's a good possibility someone in this room knows who did it."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.