One of Virginia’s worst serial arsonists eluded a massive police hunt for five months, setting nearly 80 fires on the Eastern Shore. Following night after night of futility, authorities finally got a break Monday: They say they caught him in the act.

A surveillance team watched as the man torched an abandoned home in Accomack County and then escaped in a gold minivan, police said. The stop and the arrests that followed didn’t put an end to the mystery for a frightened community, but only raised the question of why.

Police said the man who set the fire was Charles R. Smith III, 38, who friends said was a former captain with a volunteer fire department in Accomack County. His girlfriend, Tonya S. Bundick, 40, was driving the getaway car, police said.

The arrests shocked friends and neighbors, who said the couple did not fit the portrait of serial arsonists. They live in a single-
family home, and Smith has an auto body shop in Tasley. Bundick, who has two school-age children, runs a small clothing shop.

“I don’t think there’s anybody that doesn’t know them,” said Erik Redmond, an acquaintance and a medic in a local fire department. “They were a very social couple. They were always out in all the bars. . . . It’s not like they were reclusive.”

Redmond said one of his co-workers saw Bundick dressed as the Easter Bunny for a Sunday event — the same day an abandoned two-story building was torched in the town of Acccomac.

For residents of the Eastern Shore, apprehension grew as fires were set roughly every other night since mid-November. The arsonist appeared to know what he was doing: Virginia State Police said the fires have been set in such ways as to go undetected for an hour or two, and he took care to set them in areas with multiple escape routes and at random locations around the county. Residents had no idea what might be lit ablaze next.

State police officials declined to discuss a possible motive for the arsons, which have targeted abandoned and vacant buildings up and down the county, but said evidence collected from the scenes and statements made by the couple implicated them.

“We are confident that Bundick and Smith are responsible for the majority of the fires set,” said Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the state police.

Geller declined to discuss what evidence linked the couple to the fire or the methods used to light the fires.

Bundick and Smith were charged with one felony count of arson and one felony count of conspiracy to commit arson in connection with the Monday fire, which was lit about 11:40 p.m. in Melfa. But Geller said more charges would be filed in the coming days in connection with the other arsons.

The blazes touched off a major investigation by federal, state and local authorities, who employed a plane, plainclothes officers and predictive software to try to catch the arsonists before a blaze resulted in a death.

The Gomez family was one of the early targets of the arsonists. The detached garage behind the family’s home in Parksley erupted in flames one night in mid-
December, charring about $50,000 worth of personal items.

Lois Gomez said that it appeared someone had let her chickens out of the coop next to her home before the blaze erupted and that the neighbors’ dogs had not barked when someone entered her yard. Now she knows why: The arson suspects lived next door.

Gomez said her family did not get along with Bundick and Smith, who also goes by Charlie Applegate. Gomez said Bundick’s children had thrown trash in her yard and had messed with her chickens on occasions.

Still, Gomez’s son, Daniel, 19, said he never suspected the next-door neighbors as possible culprits in the fires. Despite the feuds, he described them as normal and said they never exhibited any signs that something might be amiss, even after a handful of buildings were torched in their neighborhood.

“I didn’t think they could be so close,” Daniel Gomez said. “I don’t really know how to describe it. Yeah, it was chilling.”

Members of Bundick’s family declined to comment, and Smith’s family could not be reached. A search of online court records in Accomack County showed that neither Bundick nor Smith had been convicted of felonies there, although Bundick had been cited for driving on an expired license in recent days.

Jeffrey Geller, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts medical school, said the case is unusual because serial arsonists usually work alone and less than 20 percent of suspects are women. Geller said the most common motivation for arson is revenge.

“It’s often a fairly disenfranchised person with not a great amount of success,” Geller said. “If it successfully addresses their anger, they will keep doing it.”

The arsons also put a huge burden on the fire departments in Accomack County, which rely on a mostly volunteer force of about 600. Some ran low on supplies, prompting an outpouring of support from residents and busi­nesses.

Christine Snook, owner of Chris’ Bait and Tackle, collected gift cards, Gatorade and coffee for beleaguered firefighters.

“This is a tightknit community,” Snook said. “Everybody needs to stand together when something like this happens. I’m glad they arrested somebody.”

Julie Tate and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.