Until, about 18 months later, when the investigators told him of a leading suspect: David M. Crawford, 69, who was retired from a long law enforcement career himself. Not only that, but the investigators would soon conclude Crawford had set 11 fires to houses, cars and garages across four Maryland counties over the previous decade. In every case — from former police colleagues of Crawford’s to his chiropractor to his stepson — Crawford knew his targets and had fumed up grievances with them all, the investigators allege.
“After 33 years of law enforcement, I thought I’d seen pretty much everything,” McLaughlin said. “This dropped me to my knees.”
Officials offered more details of the investigation into Crawford on Thursday. Authorities said the case broke open after investigators in Prince George’s County, searching for tips, released black-and-white surveillance video from a 2019 fire in Laurel. Months later, a fire official in neighboring Montgomery County spotted the footage and realized the man in the video bore a striking resemblance to the person recorded in a 2017 Clarksburg arson he was investigating. The connection set off a multi-jurisdictional effort that resulted in Crawford’s arrest.
Robert Bonsib, an attorney for Crawford, said Thursday the case is too new to discuss in detail.
“The allegations are broad in scope and it will take us a significant amount of time to assess and investigate them,” Bonsib said. “And they are inconsistent with Mr. Crawford’s long career of serving the community in law enforcement as a chief of police.”
Court records in the case point to several remarkable allegations and evidence: Crawford’s wide range of targets, kept on a list in his iPhone; clues left at scenes such as hair fibers linked to a German shepherd; the terror felt by people like McLaughlin, who had to shuttle his kids from his burning home. The records also described a silver-haired former police chief who walked with an unusual gait, drove a 15-year-old Toyota Camry, and allegedly concealed himself on arson jobs by pulling a tight hoodie around his head.
“He was someone I respected, I went to when I needed guidance,” McLaughlin said. “He was my boss.”
In 2010, the year before his first alleged arson, Crawford was asked to resign as chief of police in Laurel, court records say. Authorities did not elaborate Thursday on why he left.
Crawford made his first court appearance in the case Thursday and was ordered to be held without bond in the Howard County jail, according to court records. He faces charges there as well as Prince George’s, Montgomery and Frederick counties — for a total of more than 50 counts in all, including more than a dozen counts of attempted murder linked to the fires set in the middle of the night at homes while occupants were sleeping.
Because the fires were lit across four counties — with four independent fire departments — and because Crawford appears to have not surfaced as anyone’s known, violent enemy, investigators hadn’t made a connection to him well into 2019 and hadn’t solved any of the cases. Looking for help from the public, Prince George’s arson investigators released home surveillance video to the media that showed a hooded person thought to be the arsonist in that case.
About six months later, in Montgomery County, Lt. Christopher Moe came across the video while online. The footage of the suspect, he realized, looked similar to his Clarksburg case. Moe called Prince George’s County Detective Thomas Smith and said he wanted him to review the Clarksburg video.
“Take a look at this,” he remembers telling Smith.
The two met and compared notes. They looked into similar fires in Frederick and Howard counties and soon found an odd link: None of the victims knew each other, but a onetime police chief in Laurel knew them all.
“Everything started to point to Crawford,” Moe said.
Long before that development in the case — at 1:30 a.m. on May 28, 2011 — there was a bizarre fire outside the home of a Laurel city administrator. A neighbor saw through his open window, according to court records, a man he thought might be trying to break into a car. He went outside, saw the man ignite a Saturn, and then catch his own clothes on fire. The witness saw the burning man stomping his shoe in the road, putting out the fire and making his escape, the court records state.
Investigators found a Nike Monarch shoe — size 10 — on the scene, along with “a pair of almost consumed by fire jeans in the storm drain,” arrests records state. Surveillance video showed a person approach the administrator’s cars with jugs of gasoline and set them on fire. The case went unsolved.
Authorities now allege Crawford set that fire, stayed quiet for five years and struck a second time in the Clarksburg community of Montgomery County. At 5:30 a.m. he set fire to a townhouse — the occupants were out of town — causing more than $130,000 in damage, authorities allege. A year later, court records allege, he returned to the same townhouse, which was fully repaired, and set it on fire again. The home again was empty. Then, three years later — after the townhouse occupants had moved into a new home — Crawford allegedly set fire to their garage.
Having been the victim of three arsons over four years, Justin Scherstrom — married with three kids under 5 — was rattled. And while he’d had a rocky relationship with Crawford, his stepfather, he never considered him a suspect. After the third fire, in fact, the two were getting along well enough for Scherstrom to send him video of the blaze and get his opinion as a retired police chief on what was behind the fire.
“I completely trusted him,” Scherstrom said. “He was the person I looked to for help.”
By the end of 2020, investigators in Montgomery, Prince George’s, Howard and Frederick counties had began to connect the unsolved arson cases through Crawford, according to arrest records.
There were the chiropractors — a husband-and-wife team in Elkridge who had treated Crawford 19 times for a back injury. Their attached garage caught fire at 4:20 in the morning and they were able to escape with their two young children.
There was McLaughlin, Crawford’s successor as Laurel police chief. He credits his dog — Storm — with waking him up in his bedroom at 3:30 a.m., with noises that to McLaughlin suggested his pet needed to go to the bathroom. Walking downstairs, he saw orange flames outside, thought his neighbor’s house was on fire, and went to check. It turned out it was his garage, along with the side of his house. He raced upstairs to alert his wife, and they were able to get out with their daughters, then 15 and 20.
And there was Crawford’s partner in a neighborhood community association’s committee on school redistricting in Howard County. He got upset over changes she’d made to a PowerPoint file, according to court records, and demoted her “within the hierarchy of the Redistricting Organization Committee.”
As investigators from the counties made more connections, Smith, the detective in Prince George’s County, dived back into the 2011 case and pulled out the evidence from storage. The burned Nike Monarch left at the scene had hairs on it — which were tested and found to be similar to those of a German shepherd. At the time of the fire, investigators concluded, Crawford had a German shepherd.
In January, investigators served a search warrant at Crawford’s home. They found containers in his shed, which they described as similar to what they’d seen on surveillance videos.
They seized electronics, according to their court filings, including his iPhone, which they say revealed Google searches for his targets’ addresses, a PowerPoint file describing his plans for the McLaughlin fire and an Apple Health app that monitors a person’s activity.
“On several occasions on the night of the fires,” investigators wrote in court papers, “the Apple Health App data showed the suspect was moving prior to and shortly after the time of the fires.”
Katie Mettler contributed to this report.