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Home  >  Topics  >  Investigations

July 04, 2003
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New Serial Criminal Spreads Fear in Residents Around Washington

By James Dao, The New York Times

WASHINGTON, D.C. --- They have barely had time to recover from last year's deadly sniper attacks. But now, residents of this city and one of its suburbs are being rattled by a new serial criminal whose weapons are flammable liquids and matches instead of rifles.

Since late March, the authorities say, as many as 22 fires may have been set by the same arsonist outside residences in Prince George's County, Md., and neighborhoods in eastern Washington. The fires have killed an elderly woman, injured seven other people and caused tens of thousands of dollars, perhaps hundreds of thousands, in damages.

Even though the death toll has been low, the fires have jangled the region's collective nerves because of the arsonist's chilling method: The blazes have been set in the dead of night, around the porches and doorways of houses. In most cases, residents have been sound asleep inside.

The authorities, who can see no clear financial motive behind the attacks, say they believe the arsonist's intent is to injure or kill randomly selected victims and to terrorize entire communities.

"This is terrorism," said Alan Etter, a spokesman for the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department in Washington. "When these folks go to sleep at night, they don't know whether they'll wake up with their house on fire."

Mary Walker is one of many residents in the arsonist's target area who is taking no chances. She was awakened before dawn on June 22 by the sound of fire sirens and the acrid smell of smoke billowing from her neighbor's home in the Capitol Heights district of Prince George's County.

The neighbors escaped uninjured, but their split-level house remains charred and empty. Ms. Walker and her husband immediately installed motion-detecting lights and chopped down bushes that might provide cover for an intruder.

"This was done in the middle of the night so nobody could get out," Ms. Walker, 46, said of the blaze set to her neighbor's house. "It's got everyone here pretty edgy."

Elsewhere, homeowners have begun keeping watch on their porches at night and beefing up neighborhood patrols, while officials in Washington and Prince George's County have begun distributing smoke detectors to residents in areas struck by the arsonist.

The officials have also joined with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to form a task force to investigate the fires. They have set up a tip line, 301-77-ARSON and are offering a $9,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the arsonist.

"I've not experienced in my more than 30 years in the fire service anything like this," said Ronald D. Blackwell, chief of the Prince George's County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. "This number of fires in this rather compressed time period is something new to me."

On Thursday the authorities released a composite sketch of a potential witness to at least one of the fires, describing him as a black man in his 30's, 5 feet 9 inches tall, of medium complexion and build.

Fire investigators said they had physical evidence clearly linking five of the fires: four in Prince George's County and one in northwest Washington. But they said there was circumstantial evidence indicating that 18 others were set by the same person or group. The investigators said all five fires had been started with an accelerant. but they declined to provide further details.

"The m.o.'s are similar," said Capt. Chauncey Bowers, a spokesman for the Prince George's County fire and emergency agency, referring to the arsonist's mode of operation. "Typically, arson cases involve abandoned or vacant structures. These are generally occupied homes."

Just what motivates serial arsonists has befuddled investigators for decades. Some arsonists get sexual gratification from setting fires, arson experts say. Others hope to become heroes by reporting the blazes they set. Some are expressing anger toward the authorities.

And still others have burned churches, synagogues and abortion clinics to make statements about politics, race and religion. Though almost all of the 22 suspicious fires here have been in predominantly black neighborhoods, the authorities say there is no evidence that they are racially motivated.

"When you are dealing with serial arsonists, you very often don't find the motive until you have a suspect in custody," said Kirk Hankins, the second vice president of the International Association of Arson Investigators.

Some local authorities have argued that the Washington area arsonist is potentially more dangerous than the sniper rampage last year because a single out-of-control blaze could kill more than the 10 people the sniper suspects are accused of killing in the Washington area.

Marcel Chappuis, a clinical psychological who is a consultant to the Salt Lake City Fire Department and an arson expert, said the arsonist might be selecting houses simply because he feels unlikely to be caught in residential neighborhoods, not because he wants to hurt the people inside.

"There is a high probably he is hanging around because he wants to see the firemen respond," Dr. Chappuis said. "At its most basic form, arson is a control drama."

For the neighbors of Lou Edna Jones, an 86-year-old widow who died in a June 5 fire, the arsonist's motives are beside the point. The authorities classified that fire as among the 22 suspicious blazes, and the police are calling Mrs. Jones's death a murder.

Mrs. Jones was a beloved fixture on her block in northeast Washington for five decades. She took home-made soup to neighbors when they were sick and was active in the local schools attended by her children and grandchildren. Despite creaky knees, her neighbors said, she tended the roses and lilies in her garden almost daily.

The fire that killed her, like the other fires, was started around her front door and spread quickly to the second floor of her white frame house. One of her granddaughters escaped by jumping from a window, but Mrs. Jones was trapped in her bedroom. She died of burns and smoke inhalation.

Columbus George, 77, a neighbor, still tears up when he thinks of her, which he says is almost every day. He said he had planned to buy her flowers the day before she died, but did not make it to the florist on time.

"I was going to tell her what a great person she was," Mr. George said. "I just didn't make it."






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