- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 14, 2005

INDIAN HEAD, Md. — Brandon Shores long awaited the day last December when his family was to move into the Hunters Brooke subdivision. The big house meant a room of his own, a new slice of independence for the 12-year-old who has shared a bedroom with his mother.

But a week before his family was to sign papers for the house, Brandon’s new room, along with the house, was burned to the foundation by arsonists. The two-story Colonial was one of 35 unfinished houses set ablaze, causing $10 million in damage in what was Maryland’s worst case of residential arson.

“I was so mad,” Brandon said, remembering the first time he saw the scorched remains of the house at the top of Cabinwood Court. “I was so happy to be getting my own room.”

Eight months later, as a trial for the reputed arson ringleader is set to begin, most of the houses have risen again. Brandon finally has his room — his family moved into their rebuilt house in May.

Many Hunters Brooke residents tell stories of living in cramped apartments on temporary leases, crashing in the basements and spare rooms of relatives, cramming households into temporary storage. Almost all were forced to wait as their homes were rebuilt, putting their lives and hopes for a new home on hold.

“We refused to unpack,” said Jacque Hightower, 33, who was supposed to close on his house the day after the Dec. 6 fire and spent several months in a small apartment. “My wife said, ‘We are not staying here.’ So we lived out of boxes.”

The first trial of the five men accused of setting the fires is scheduled to begin tomorrow in federal court in Baltimore. Patrick Walsh, who purportedly hatched the plot, is charged with arson and conspiracy. Two of the five suspects pleaded guilty earlier this year and will be sentenced in October. Mr. Walsh pleaded not guilty in January.

Authorities believe the men were linked through a mutual interest in street racing or were part of a group, known as “the Family,” that met regularly at a Denny’s restaurant in Waldorf, Md. In court papers and hearings, federal prosecutors contend the group was involved in earlier, smaller fires that amounted to a warm-up for the Hunters Brooke fires.

A variety of motives have been ascribed to the different suspects, including revenge and a desire to make a name for “the Family.” But perhaps most disturbing for the new residents of Hunters Brooke, many of whom are black, is the possibility that some of the reputed arsonists were driven by anger that black residents were moving into the rural corner of Charles County.

Charles Gordon, 43, said he thought once about backing out of his plans to buy his house a few addresses down from Brandon and his family on Cabinwood Court. Mr. Gordon, who is black, was lucky — the arsonists skipped over his house as they worked down the block. His move-in was delayed only by a month.

“If you keep running from people, you’ll be running the rest of your life,” said Mr. Gordon, who moved from Upper Marlboro for a bigger house.

Marshall Ames, a spokesman for the developer, Lennar Corp. of Miami, said the last houses damaged by fire should be delivered to owners this month. Those who have already moved in say few of the original buyers backed out after the arsons.

Eight months ago, many of the homes in the development were little more than charred shells. Federal investigators believe the suspects drove along the street in the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 6, kicking in doors, spreading flammable liquid in the front halls and lighting it. Ten houses were destroyed.

In some cases, houses that appeared fine from the outside had been damaged beyond repair. Mr. Hightower’s house looked pristine from the street, but it wasn’t until they finally went inside three weeks later that they discovered a fire had been set. Smoke and fire damage forced the builders to raze it to the foundation and begin construction anew.

Judy Manning, Brandon’s grandmother, said even the foundation on their house had to be replaced after the fire burned at nearly 2,000 degrees. Her family has kept a photo diary of the house, with snapshots taken shortly after the blaze and photos of its gradual reconstruction over six months.

She struggles to understand what the motivation was, whether it was just bored youths or something else. She has kept track of the court proceedings, and says she will likely pay attention to Mr. Walsh’s trial.

“I don’t know what went through their minds,” she said, standing on her stoop with Brandon as hummingbirds hovered around a nearby feeder.

“I’m just ticked off they did it. I hope they get what they deserve,” she said.

Despite the delayed moves and the long waits for their new homes, many residents say some good actually came from the fires.

They met each other early, either wandering dazed around the crime scene in December or at community meetings that followed. The awkward first moments of meeting the neighbors vanished in a shared experience that helped them form fast friendships, said Mr. Hightower.

“We already knew who was moving into each house,” said Mr. Hightower, who has already been to cocktail parties with his new neighbors. “It’s a great neighborhood and great neighbors.”

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