A fire at Foxhall Square Shopping Mall on New Mexico Avenue NW on Thursday night was allegedly set by an American University professor. This video shows the fire department putting out the fire. (News2Share via YouTube)

An American University professor accused of breaking into a strip of stores below his apartment near campus and setting several small fires was put on leave Friday and ordered by a judge to remain in jail until a preliminary hearing next week.

David W. Pitts, 37, who chairs the school’s Department of Public Administration and Policy and holds a doctoral degree, was arrested Thursday and charged with burglary and destruction of property. His attorney, Justin Okezie, did not return calls seeking comment. Pitts’s next court hearing is Monday.

A spokeswoman for AU said Pitts has been at the university since 2005. She said other professors have been assigned to take over his classes and duties as department chair. He also is on the editorial boards of several university journals and publications.

Pitts was arrested after he was put under surveillance by Montgomery County police at his D.C. apartment complex, at the Foxhall Square shopping center in the 3300 block of New Mexico Avenue NW. Authorities said he was being sought on a burglary warrant linked to a break-in Wednesday at a pharmacy. The shopping center is about two blocks from the university, and Pitts lives in an apartment above the stores.

According to an arrest affidavit, about 1 a.m. Thursday, Montgomery officers saw Pitts set a chair on fire near a guard shack at his apartment complex’s parking garage. Then, the documents state, he lit a newspaper on fire in front of a Starbucks and then set a fire in the woods off Embassy Park Drive. Police said they then saw Pitts force his way into the mall, giving him access to a pharmacy, bank and several doctors’ offices. The officers called D.C. police, and Pitts was arrested after a brief chase from the third level of the mall into the parking garage.

The arrest affidavit says Pitts had a white bag containing newspapers and an oily, black substance in a plastic bowl. Police said they found two lighters and matches in his pockets. Inside his apartment, the affidavit says, police found 5,431 prescription pills, including 2,310 Cialis pills, sedatives to treat insomnia and oxycodone.

According to the police affidavit, Pitts at first denied setting fires or breaking into the shopping center but then blamed the acts on his “disoriented state and need to obtain an envelope in his name containing a prescription” from his psychiatrist.

Authorities are aware of Pitts’s Twitter account, which contains postings and photos from the scene of early-morning fires at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park hotel in Northwest on Aug. 30, which forced guests from their rooms and into smoky hallways. The hotel fires, which authorities said were set, occurred in the midst of the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association.

A police document, portions of which were read to The Washington Post, references the Twitter account and says the hotel fires were similar to those at the shopping center. Pitts has not been charged in the hotel fires.

One Tweet complains that firefighters were slow: “How long does it take to put out a fire for which there is no smoke?” Another says: “Marriott is on fire. Nothing like seeing all of the political scientists in their nighties at 1 am.”

Mike DeBonis and Dan Morse contributed to this report.

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