- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2004

INDIAN HEAD, Md. — Authorities yesterday confirmed that as many as seven houses were deliberately set ablaze Monday in a newly constructed upscale subdivision here, as more than 100 investigators sifted through the ashes of the largest arson case in Maryland history.

Investigators have not ruled out ecoterrorism, or any other motive, as the cause behind the fires that destroyed at least 10 houses at Hunters Brooke, off Route 225 in Charles County, a fire official said yesterday. The development had been opposed by environmentalists for years because it is near a magnolia bog they said would be polluted by the project.

“We have not been able to establish at this point any motive,” said Deputy State Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor.

FBI spokesman Barry Maddox said the agency was not aware of any groups taking credit for the fires. He also said he was not aware of any recent activity locally by radical environmental groups, such as the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).

“All of these groups, we are aware of them. We will conduct a logical investigation,” Mr. Maddox said. But, he said, ELF was “not something we are focusing on.”

Marshal Ames, vice president of investor relations for Lennar Corp., which was building the development, said he was outraged by the possibility that the fires might have been set as an act of protest. Damage was estimated at at least $10 million, a figure authorities expect to rise.

“If someone is unhappy that this area has been approved for homeowning, threatening lives and damaging property is the wrong way to disagree,” he said in a telephone interview from the company headquarters in Miami yesterday.

He said the fires will not stop the development from moving forward.

“It will be built. There is insurance coverage for this type of damage,” he said.

The houses were priced at from $400,000 to $500,000.

Last night, WRC-TV (Channel 4) reported that police were looking for the driver of a blue van seen leaving the neighborhood.

Mr. Ames said the fires have upset some prospective buyers, some of whom were days away from closing on their new houses in the development.

“A number of people have had their lives terribly disrupted,” he said. “Many of these families have already sold their existing homes, made moving plans and made significant financial commitments.”

Mr. Ames said he didn’t know how many buyers were affected by the fires. Authorities have not allowed Lennar officials access to the site and provided limited information about the extent of the damage to each house.

Authorities yesterday allowed several families to return to their homes, which were some distance from the crime scene, Marshal Taylor said. One family was not allowed to return to its home because it is located within the 10-acre crime scene.

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