- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2003

Authorities looking for links among the 22 arson fires in the District and Prince George’s County are following up on phone tips, revisiting the scenes and re-interviewing witnesses since the arsonist last struck six days ago.

The last fire deemed similar in nature occurred Wednesday in the 300 block of 17th Street SE. Five of the fires since March 25 have been conclusively linked.

In addition to 150 witnesses who have been questioned in connection with the case, investigators have received 54 calls on their tip line. The tip line is 301/77-ARSON.

Chief Ronald Blackwell of the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department said yesterday that he is optimistic that “good information has been gathered” from the tips and that the serial arsonist will be caught.

“Generally speaking, at any given time there’s a minimum of 15 investigators involved, and that number sometimes goes higher,” Chief Blackwell said. “Based on some of the evidence we’ve gathered, there are some things that we believe only we know and the person or persons who are responsible know.”

Chief Blackwell — whose department is working with the D.C. Fire and EMS department, the Metropolitan Police Department, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — said the task force formed to investigate the arson cases would continue to announce when fires are conclusively linked.

But he said officials would be likely reveal less information about the fires that they find are connected to avoid “unnecessary anxiety” among members of the community.

The fires linked to the arsonist have been set in the middle of the night or in the early-morning hours outside houses or in hallways of apartment buildings. Each of the fires involved the use of an ignitable liquid.

Among those is a June 5 blaze that killed Lou Edna Jones, 86, in the 4900 block of Evarts Street NE. The Metropolitan Police Department is investigating that case as a homicide.

Seven persons, including a D.C. firefighter, have been injured in the other fires. The injuries include smoke inhalation, minor burns and a broken ankle.

Authorities have issued a lookout for someone they call a “possible crucial witness,” who was seen riding a bicycle from the scene of a fire in the 2500 block of Randolph Street NE June 30. The person is described as a black man in his 30s, about 5 feet 9 inches tall and with a medium build. At the time of the fire, the man was wearing a dark-blue baseball cap, a burgundy T-shirt and dark pants.

Officials are offering a $9,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the serial arsonist.

“In my more than 30 years in the fire service I’ve personally experienced arson but never this many arsons in such a short time frame,” Chief Blackwell said.

He said the closing of a high-profile unrelated arson case in Prince George’s County yesterday is likely to free up more investigators for the other arson cases.

County fire investigators arrested three persons in connection with a June 1 fire at the Irish Pub in Laurel. That blaze caused $1.5 million in damage. The restaurant owner — Valerie Jean Oliver, 43, of Laurel — and two employees — Michael James Gross, 21 of Laurel, and Amanda Lee Master, 21, of Jessup — were charged with second-degree arson and first-degree malicious burning.

Those charges carry a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison and $35,000 in fines.

D.C. Fire and EMS spokesman Alan Etter said D.C. investigators “continue to work with and support the work of the task force that has been established to investigate the fires,” but that they are also investigating other cases, including two fires at the Marina View Towers on the 1000 block of Sixth Street SW. A fire was set on the fourth floor of the apartment building early Sunday. Another fire was set on the fifth floor June 26.

Mr. Etter said it does not appear that the serial arsonist is responsible for those fires.

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