- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004

Federal authorities say they are closer to capturing the serial arsonist believed responsible for 45 fires in the region, though critics point out that the 21-month investigation has yielded no arrests and that the arsonist appears to be growing more destructive and brazen.

“Every day the investigators approach the case as if this could be the day,” said Theresa Stoop, special agent in charge of the Baltimore field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Miss Stoop said 130 investigators from jurisdictions across the region and the country are following more than 1,000 leads and have conducted more than 600 interviews since the arsonist first struck in March 2003 outside a house in the District.

Still, their work has resulted in no suspects.

“Are we working the fires every day?” Miss Stoop asked. “Yes. Are we closer? Yes. How close is that? I cannot tell you.”

The case took on increasing urgency when the arsonist struck twice last week, following a 74-day lull.

A fire was set Tuesday in the inside stairwell of an apartment building in Bladensburg, and a fire set Friday was at a home in the same Northeast neighborhood in which the arsonist had struck twice before.

The fire Friday, sources close to the investigation said, deviated from the arsonist’s pattern because it had more than one point of origin, and a liquid accelerant was more liberally spread and in a manner to lead the fire inside the house.

Ron F. Tunkel, an ATF profiler who began working the case in the summer of 2003, said many serial arsonists exhibit a pattern of progressively more destructive behavior.

But “in this case, we have a series of events that are extremely similar to one another,” he said. “We haven’t necessarily seen a dramatic change of behavior that we have seen in other cases. If anything has been slightly modified in the profile, I see him as a little more organized than when he started.”

Mr. Tunkel said one deviation from the pattern, as with Friday’s fire, was not likely to change the arsonist’s profile.

However, profilers fear that the two fires in one week could mean the holiday season is creating more stress for thearsonist, which means he could set more fires.

They also have not ruled out the possibility that the arsonist resumed his activity Tuesday because he felt upstaged the previous day by the arson fires in a Charles County development that damaged or destroyed 26 homes and caused about $10 million in damage.

One problem for investigators is that the fires follow no geographical or sequential pattern.

For example, two fires were set on June 5, 2003. But four times the arsonist has stopped setting fires for more than two months. Some fires are set 30 miles apart, encompassing the District, Alexandria, Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, while three fires have occurred within a half mile of each other in Northeast.

The method has become so familiar that investigators rarely need forensic tests to determine whether it was set by the arsonist. The fires are set with an accelerant liquid from midnight to 6 a.m. outside an occupied dwelling, and in many cases the accelerant has been left in a container with a soaked cloth as a wick.

Twelve persons have been hurt and one killed in fires attributed to the arsonist. Lou Edna Jones, 86, died in a June 2003 house fire in the 2800 block of Evarts Street NE.

But in most cases a resident, a neighbor or a passerby saw the fire, and the home was evacuated safely. But on one occasion, a failed attempt in the 4100 block of Anacostia Avenue NE in September 2003, somebody got a good look.

Investigators say a woman interrupted the arsonist and had a brief conversation with him before he fled.

Authorities quickly produced a sketch of a black man, 35 to 50 years old, 6-feet tall with a medium build, light brown complexion and graying, close-cropped hair.

But getting out such information to the public has created problems within the task force, which meets regularly at an undisclosed office.

For example, Prince George’s County provides a link to information on the main page of its fire department Web site. But the Alexandria, Fairfax and Montgomery counties provide no links to information on the main pages of their fire department sites.

Miss Stoop acknowledges the task force has struggled to deliver consistent and accurate information.

“There are competing missions out there,” said Miss Stoop, who described the ATF’s role as “coordinating” the investigation.

D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty questioned the city’s involvement in the task force after an October 2003 fire in the District was followed by Prince George’s County fire Chief Ronald Blackwell holding a press conference outside the Northeast home. And high-ranking officials in the region were upset when the ATF decided to keep Mr. Blackwell as the public face of the investigation after he took afire chief job in Anne Arundel County.

Area officials have also complained about the ATF taking too much control.

“This is what we do,” Miss Stoops responded. “We work large cases. We are the protective shell. We have to do everything to protect our evidence for prosecutors. …Sometimes you have disagreements. Politics does not drive this investigation. Feelings do not drive this investigation. The evidence drives this investigation.”

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