- The Washington Times - Monday, December 13, 2004

Authorities yesterday tried to dispel the perception that they have reached an impasse in their investigation into who set fire to dozens of luxury homes in Charles County last week.

“I wouldn’t say we’re stumped. I would say the investigation is progressing very well,” said Kelly Long, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Investigators have not revealed much about the evidence they found at the 10-acre crime scene in the Hunters Brooke development in Indian Head, Md., where they suspect that more than one person set the fires on Dec. 6.

In all, 10 houses were destroyed and 16 others were damaged. Investigators say arsonists also tried to set fire to 10 other houses.

Authorities say they don’t want to reveal much about their investigation because they don’t want to tip off those responsible for setting the fires, which caused at least $10 million in damage. They said they have the clues they need to track down the perpetrators.

“I think it’s a solvable case,” said Capt. Joseph C. Montminy, a spokesman for the Charles County Sheriff’s Office. “We’re getting some places, but we don’t have an arrest warrant in hand yet.”

Ms. Long said she did not know how many cans of flammable liquid were found at the scene and could not estimate how long it would take for technicians at the ATF laboratory in Ammendale to analyze the evidence. One can could keep lab technicians busy for four or five days, she said.

So far, authorities have not received any leads on a blue van that was seen at the development at about the time the fires were set.

Since the fires, the number of investigators has been slightly reduced from its peak size of more than 100, Capt. Montminy said. The Maryland Fire Marshal’s Office is leading the investigation, which is headquartered in the county sheriff’s office.

Investigators also have not identified a motive for the fires, but have acknowledged the possibility of ecoterrorism. Environmental groups opposed the Hunters Brooke development because of its proximity to a magnolia bog, which is a rare and unique ecosystem.

However, investigators have played down the idea that the fires were racially motivated. The county, which has long been predominantly white, has seen a significant jump in its black population. Many of the homeowners at Hunters Brooke are black.

Officers from the FBI, ATF, Charles County Sheriff’s Office, State Fire Marshal’s Office and state police are conducting interviews with people connected to the development, where houses were in various stages of construction.

Among those was Patricia Stamper, one of several people who sued the Army Corps of Engineers to stop the agency from issuing permits to developers in that area. She said four FBI agents stopped by her home in Indian Head a day after the fires.

The agents were “very nice, very polite,” she said. She said she told them she did not know anything about who might have committed the arson.

Rod Coronado, an animal rights activist and unofficial spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a radical environmentalist group, said he thinks authorities are waiting for the perpetrators to make a mistake or identify themselves on the Internet or elsewhere.

Mr. Coronado was in a federal prison from 1995 to 1999 for firebombing animal-research laboratories at Michigan State University.

Since 1997, ELF has taken responsibility for numerous acts of arson and property destruction that have caused more than $100 million in damage.

ELF is a movement of people who resort to illegal acts of destruction to inflict economic damage to businesses and developers who are “destroying the earth,” said Mr. Coronado, who is under federal indictment on conspiracy charges related to a local environmental group’s interference with the hunt for mountain lions in Arizona last March.

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