- The Washington Times - Friday, December 10, 2004

The serial arsonist struck again yesterday, and again the occupants of the home were able to escape with their lives. The early morning blaze in Northeast Washington, which meets the general characteristics of the arsons that began in March 2003, forced federal and local law enforcers to mark yesterday’s torching as No. 46. Arlington County is the juridiction that has — so far — escaped the destruction of the arsonist (or arsonists), and his motives are unknown. The media have given much attention to this frightening 23-month-old news story, as well they should, since he seemingly strikes indiscriminately. But no news organization has asked authorities what we think is a critical question at this juncture: Do our local law enforcers have the capacity to mount a strong arson investigation?

The arsonist first struck in March 2003, setting ablaze two homes in Southeast. In April of that year, he hit two homes in Prince George’s County, and in May he struck again in both the city and the county. Still on the prowl for targets in June 2003, his only fatality occured on June 5 — a day he set two separate blazes. The culprit likes to toss flammable liquids on wood-frame homes, which is precisely what he did yesterday, when the 46th arson broke out at about 5 a.m. Because of that torching and two others in the same area since early September, authorities labeled the Woodridge area a so-called hot zone.

The serial arsonist’s latest fire came the same week that arsonists set fire to 26 houses in an upscale subdivision in Charles County. Evidence uncovered the arsonists’ intention to set 10 other homes on fire, too. Like in the serial arsonist case, authorities in the Charles County case have yet to rule out any possible motive, so they are probing everything from ecoterrorism and insurance fraud to racial motivation (since most of the homeowners are black) and disgruntled construction laborers. The blazes, which were set on Monday, comprise Maryland’s worst-ever case of arson. People are anxiously awaiting results of the investigation. “We have made significant progress,” is the reassurance State Fire Marshal William E. Barnard offered on Thursday, after investigators completed their work at the massive crime scene.

We appreciate all the hard work our law enforcement officers have dedicated to catching the torchers — especially the risk to life and limb as they fight the blazes, and the incredible numbers of man hours they put in. But the obvious issue of probity must not be overlooked.

Indeed, a task force of regional and federal authorities is investigating the serial arsonist, while the Charles County arsons are under the eye of the FBI, federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as Maryland authorities. Still, as The Washington Times reported yesterday: “A source close to the multiagency arson invesigation team said the investigators appeared stumped. The lack of suspects reminded the source of the early days of the hunt for the Washington-area snipers,” who conducted a bloody three-week rampage before being caught.

Huge rewards are being offered in both cases, and that is a smart tool that often induces people with concrete information out of the woodwork. Nonetheless, putting a bounty on the head of firebugs and other criminals doesn’t guarantee people will come forward with information that leads to an arrest or a conviction. (Where’s “America’s Most Wanted” when you need it?)

In these uncertain days of homeland security, policy-makers in our local jurisdictions need to take a harder look at firefighting capabilities — not to criticize, however, but to use these arsons as a springboard to question-and-answer sessions to determine whether our firefighters and fire marshals have the money and manpower they need to prevent and catch arsonists. So far, the misfortunes have only claimed one life (that of an elderly woman), despite the considerable damage to property.

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