- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Members of a multijurisdictional task force are investigating an early-morning fire yesterday in Northeast for links to a serial arsonist, even as D.C. officials question whether the D.C. fire department is taking an active enough role in the investigation.

The latest fire was set at about 4 a.m. yesterday at a home in the 1300 block of Otis Street NE. Four persons were inside the home at the time of the blaze, but escaped without injury.

That fire brings to 30 the total of suspicious fires considered “similar in nature” — 18 in the District and 12 in Prince George’s County. Ten fires, six in Prince George’s County and four in the District, have been conclusively linked to the serial arsonist.

“We have some physical evidence that is very promising,” Prince George’s Fire/EMS Chief Ronald D. Blackwell said at a news conference outside the Otis Street home yesterday. “We’ve interviewed a number of people and also eliminated a number of potential suspects.”

Chief Blackwell said he is convinced investigators are “getting closer” to a suspect, adding there is a list of people they are “very, very interested in.” He said investigators believe yesterday’s fire likely will be linked to the arsonist, but they are awaiting lab results before saying for certain.

The latest fire also has raised concern that the authority of the task force may be encroaching on the responsibilities of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

Calls to D.C. Fire and EMS spokesman Alan Etter regarding yesterday morning’s fire were referred to Prince George’s County.

“I’ve been directed to refer all calls to the arson task force,” Mr. Etter said, adding that the directive came from D.C. Fire and EMS Chief Adrian H. Thompson. The arson task force consists of 10 agencies, including the D.C. Fire and EMS Department, Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department, the Metropolitan Police Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

When asked who spoke for the task force, Mr. Etter said, “Prince George’s County is the primary point of contact for official information.”

“This is crazy. It baffles me why we would go along with it,” D.C. Council member Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, said of the directive.

Mr. Fenty, whose district includes two houses that are among the 10 conclusively linked to the arsonist, questioned how involved D.C. fire investigators are in the probe. He said it appears to D.C. residents as though the city government is handing over responsibility for the safety of its residents to another jurisdiction.

“District residents have completely lost confidence in what our government is doing to stop these fires,” Mr. Fenty said. “I really just do not know if we’re doing anything to solve these crimes.”

Chief Thompson said fire investigators continue to work on the “nuts and bolts” of the case, despite their low profile.

“Chief Blackwell is the originator of the task force, so to speak,” Chief Thompson said. “We have no problem with him being the voice of the task force.”

“Mr. Fenty is going to say what he’s going to say, because he’s not really knowledgeable of what’s really going on,” Chief Thompson said. “He’s going to say that until he gets more information, and then he’ll understand what’s really going on.”

Mark Brady, a spokesman for the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department, said all the agencies are involved in the day-to-day work of the task force, but Prince George’s County officials “coordinate the activities of the task force” and Chief Blackwell is the “public face” of the investigation.

“It was decided early on, because we had done a lot of legwork at the very beginning when we went to check with D.C. and said, ‘Are you guys seeing the same thing?’ We started comparing notes and thereby started the task force,” Mr. Brady said. “That is typically the way large-scale incidents, disaster scenes and task forces are done.”

D.C. Council member Vincent Orange said perhaps D.C. officials should meet to make sure they are playing a more active and more public role in the investigation.

“I think we need to have a multitude of resources working to bring some type of resolution to this case,” said Mr. Orange, Ward 5 Democrat who represents the neighborhood where yesterday’s fire was set.

“But I will say that I believe D.C. officials definitely should be in the know, definitely should be at the table, definitely should be able to respond to citizens about events that occur in our city.”

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