- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2003

Fire officials from Prince George’s County and the District yesterday said 22 fires are being investigated for links to the same serial arsonist.

The announcement, coming amid signs of a rift between the two jurisdictions in the arson investigation, superseded Wednesday’s tally by D.C. fire and police officials of 29 suspicious fires being examined as arson.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson, with their respective fire chiefs, yesterday told reporters that 22 fires since March are being investigated. Five on that list have been conclusively linked to a serial arsonist.

The fifth fire just added to the list occurred June 13 in the 3800 block of Ellis Street in Capitol Heights.

Officials also announced the formation of a joint tip line, 301/77-ARSON, and a $2,500 contribution by Prince George’s County volunteer firefighters to the reward fund that now stands at $9,000.

Mr. Williams and Mr. Johnson held their news conference outside a home on Southern Avenue SE where a fire was set May 15, in part to restore public confidence in the joint investigation.

During a hastily arranged news conference at D.C. police headquarters Wednesday, D.C. police and fire officials said 29 fires were being studied for links, and police released a description of a possible “crucial witness” to a fire Monday.

But Prince George’s County officials expressed surprise that they were not invited to the news conference and said they were unaware a witness description had been made public. They also disputed the total of 29 fires under investigation.

“That number came from an internal document where we were considering going back and analyzing seven previous fires, but the number remains at 22 that are similar in nature,” Prince George’s County Fire Chief Ronald Blackwell said yesterday.

Chief Blackwell said the number of fires being investigated could increase, but that for now it is 22.

D.C. police yesterday said they called Wednesday’s news conference because they were eager to distribute the description before the Fourth of July holiday. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said police never should have released the list of 29 fires, which contained an additional seven fires that occurred in Prince George’s County.

“The information that was released relative to Prince George’s County was released in error,” he said.

Chief Ramsey, who was not at yesterday’s news conference, defended his department’s involvement in the case.

“The fire department’s got the lead on this — I don’t have a problem with that,” he said. “But I’m not going to sit around and wait for [someone else to die] before we get involved. This is just as serious as the sniper case or any other serial case we’ve had here. People’s lives are at stake here, and we’ve got to do everything we can to make sure we bring this person into custody.”

A June 5 fire in the 4900 block of Evarts Street NE killed 86-year-old Lou Edna Jones. Metropolitan Police are investigating that case as a homicide.

Seven persons were injured in other fires, ranging from minor burns and smoke inhalation to a broken ankle. None of the injuries occurred in the arsons that have been conclusively linked.

The first of the fires under investigation occurred March 25. There have been 21 fires similar in nature since May 15. The fires all started outside dwellings during the overnight or early morning hours and involve the use of an accelerant.

Both Chief Ramsey and Chief Blackwell said their departments are working closely together.

“The communication at the level where the work gets done, that’s occurring and working really well,” Chief Blackwell said. “What happened [Wednesday] was unfortunate,” he said, adding that such things happen from time to time when several agencies are involved in an investigation.

Chief Blackwell said he has spoken with Chief Ramsey about the cases and he speaks daily by telephone with D.C. Fire Chief Adrian H. Thompson.

Members of the Arson Task Force — which include Metropolitan Police, the D.C. fire department, the Prince George’s County fire department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — have interviewed more than 150 persons so far, Chief Blackwell said.

Chief Thompson said investigators are still trying to track down a man witnesses placed at the scene of a fire Monday in the 2500 block of Randolph Street NE.

The man is described as black, about 5-foot-9, medium build and in his 30s. He was wearing a dark-blue baseball cap, a burgundy T-shirt and dark pants. Police said he was riding a bicycle.

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