- The Washington Times - Friday, December 10, 2004

Some residents who returned yesterday to the Hunters Brooke development in Charles County, where arson damaged or destroyed 26 houses, vowed to stay put and said they are not intimidated, whether the motive for the crime is environmental or otherwise.

“I don’t think they were out to hurt anyone,” said Clayton Thompson, a firefighter in Fairfax County who moved into the neighborhood just two weeks ago. “They didn’t mess with any of the occupied houses. If it was environmentalists, hopefully they got their point across. I think we’re safe and secure here.”

Kelly Long, a special agent for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said yesterday that the agency’s National Response Team had concluded its on-site work and has turned over the scene to local investigators.

About 100 investigators spread out across the community yesterday to begin interviewing everyone remotely linked to the development — including builders and homeowners. They also will follow on a stream of tips.

“There have been no developments, but [investigators] are working,” Miss Long said. “Nothing has been eliminated as far as motives or as far as persons of interest.”

The quiet streets yesterday once again began to resemble a burgeoning development, as utility-company vehicles and construction workers drove in and out to begin making repairs.

Dirt hills, cranes and lumber sat in muddy, underdeveloped lots, just yards away from the charred remains of houses.

The speculation about a motive for the fires has ranged from ecoterrorism or insurance fraud to hate crime or revenge by disgruntled construction workers. Investigators think because of the sheer volume of fires that more than one person was involved.

The early-morning fires destroyed 10 houses and damaged 16 in the development, off Route 225. Arson is suspected in 20 of the fires and arson was attempted at 10 others, investigators said yesterday. The remaining six houses had collateral damage. The fires at the houses, which were in various stages of construction, caused at least $10 million in damage. No one was injured.

W. Faron Taylor, Maryland’s deputy fire marshal, would not comment on news reports that investigators scouring the neighborhood recovered several open containers — similar to buckets — that held a liquid accelerant. Investigators who spoke anonymously said the buckets did not have a wick and that it was not clear what mechanism would have been used to ignite the accelerant.

Materials recovered from the arsons were sent to the ATF laboratory in Ammendale, near Beltsville, for testing.

Authorities still hope to find a blue van seen on the morning of the fires in the development, a subdivision of Colonial-style homes priced from $400,000 to $500,000. Each house sits on a quarter-acre lot.

Mr. Thompson said the fires have not caused him to consider leaving the development.

“As a firefighter, I see fires all the time, so it didn’t faze me,” he said.

He did not believe the fires were racially motivated, as some people have speculated. He said his first thought was that thieves were stealing appliances and burning down the houses to cover their tracks.

Mr. Thompson, 51, said he was at work when the fires were set. His wife, Anita, grabbed the couple’s pit bull, Venus, and fled the home. After putting the dog in a kennel, the Thompsons spent two nights in the hotel before returning home Thursday.

Mr. Thompson said his wife, who had been worried about moving into their new home because the neighborhood was dark, is a little more uncomfortable.

Sylvester Kelley, a computer engineer who moved into the development last week from Dale City, Va., said he saw the fires as he was leaving his house that morning. He said he was among those interviewed yesterday by local investigators during an exhaustive, door-to-door interview process.

“About 4:22 a.m., I was coming out of my garage and I saw smoke from the other side of the trees,” said Mr. Kelley, 56. “I went upstairs to the bedroom window. That’s when I saw two houses on fire.”

Mr. Kelley said he wasn’t worried for his safety but was dismayed by the theory that environmentalists could have set the fire.

“It’s fanatical, actually, that environmentalists would try to prove their point that way,” he said. “The houses they’re burning down, they’re made of wood. And they’re burning down wildlife and trees, the very trees they are trying to protect.”

Mr. Kelly, who is black, also discounted the theory that race played a role.

“There’s blacks, Mexicans and whites in this neighborhood. This is 2004, not 1840.”

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