- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

A security guard who worked at an upscale Charles County development where a series of fires burned several newly constructed houses last week was arrested on arson charges yesterday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

Authorities said Aaron Lee Speed, 21, was employed by Security Services of America (SSA), a company the developer hired to guard the upscale Hunters Brooke subdivision off Route 225 in Indian Head, Md.

Authorities did not suggest a motive, and a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said she did not know how many arson charges Mr. Speed faced.

The fires, which broke out early Dec. 6, caused at least $10 million in damage.

Mr. Speed was in custody last night and expected to appear today in federal court in Greenbelt. The maximum penalty for arson is 20 years on each count.

The fires destroyed 10 houses and damaged 16 others. Authorities also said arson was attempted at 10 other houses in the subdivision.

“They have the wrong man,” Mr. Speed told WUSA-TV (Channel 9) yesterday after his parents’ Waldorf, Md., home was searched but before he was arrested. “Everything that I’m doing, I’m doing willingly to prove to them that I am innocent. I’m taking a polygraph today that’ll show them that I’m innocent.”

It could not be learned if a polygraph test were administered.

David Jaillet, whose stepdaughter is married to Mr. Speed, said earlier yesterday that the officers towed away a car.

Mr. Speed had suffered through several difficult family situations, including the death of a baby son this year and his own placement about 18 months ago in a foster home by an organization specializing in mental health treatment.

Mr. Speed is a “decent person,” Mr. Jaillet said. Asked if he thought Mr. Speed was involved in the fires, Mr. Jaillet said: “No, I don’t think he is; it’s not in his character.”

Last night, no one answered the door at the house. A homemade “No Trespassing” sign was taped to the storm door of the ranch-style home.

Linda Auwers, general counsel for the parent company of Security Services of America, ABM Industries Inc. of San Francisco, said authorities asked the company not to comment.

“We are fully cooperating with the authorities in their investigation of this matter,” she said.

Early speculation was that the fires were set by environmentalists who believed the houses were a threat to a nearby magnolia bog. But no evidence has been found to support that theory, authorities said.

Because of the scale of the crime scene, authorities believe at least two persons are responsible for the arsons.

Environmentalists from Charles County who have opposed the Hunters Brooke homes for years said they did not know Mr. Speed and were relieved that an arrest had been made.

“All of us have been amazed. I never thought it was somebody connected with trying to save the environment. The people who come to the meetings are totally nonviolent and noncriminal. It just seemed highly unlikely [that they would be involved] to me,” said Alex Winter, a member of the Save Araby, Mattawoman and Mason Springs (SAMMS) group.

Karyn Molines of Maryland Native Plant Society’s Southern Maryland chapter said she also was pleased that an arrest had been made.

“It was a real travesty,” she said. “I never thought it was [an environmentalist].”

Both groups sued the Army Corps of Engineers for issuing building permits to developers. Last summer, a judge ordered the Corps to provide a further explanation of why the agency issued the permits, but allowed the construction to go forward.

Environmentalists are hoping that the Corps will issue restrictive controls on the building process that will protect the Araby Bog, a rare ecosystem.

Neither Mr. Winter nor Mrs. Molines said they knew or had heard of Mr. Speed.

“All the people I know as environmental activists would not have done that. They would not have done something so horrible,” Mrs. Molines said.

Mr. Jaillet said Mr. Speed had worked as a security guard for about a year and was a supervisor at the Hunters Brooke site.

A day after the fires, Mr. Speed told The Washington Post he saw a blue van when he visited the guard on duty at the Hunters Brooke site at about 3:30 a.m. Dec. 6. The fires broke out about 4:45 a.m. Several Hunters Brooke residents told The Washington Times that no security guard was on duty when the fires broke out.

Mr. Speed told The Washington Post he could only see the driver and was not sure whether anyone else was in the van.

“It basically looked like they were trying to watch,” he told The Post, referring to the van. “I saw it lingering around. … It kept passing by the construction site entrance.”

Since the fires, Charles County sheriff’s officers have taken over the guard duty at the Hunters Brooke site.

Soon after the arsons, investigators acknowledged that they spoke to Mr. Speed.

The Hunters Brooke fires are the largest arson case in Maryland’s history. More than 100 investigators worked on the case, mostly conducting interviews with hundreds of residents, community neighbors and businesses.

Evidence from arson sites and possible accelerants were turned over to analysts with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Mr. Speed’s former foster mother, Faith Kern of Waldorf, said that about 18 months ago an agency called Alternatives for Youth and Families asked her to take Mr. Speed. He had been living with his mother and stepfather, Ms. Kern said.

She declined to say why he left his parents’ house, but said “he was overcoming his anger.”

“He has overcome some difficulties in his life, but he made progress with me,” Ms. Kern said. She said Mr. Speed lived with her for about six months.

“I found him to be a very likable person,” she said. “I don’t think he would do anything like that and I’m really sorry he’s a suspect.”

The head of Alternatives for Youth and Families, which is based in Charlotte Hall, declined to comment on whether Mr. Speed had been a client. Executive Director Eugene Johnson said the organization specializes in outpatient mental health programs for people between the ages of 5 and 22, including therapeutic foster care.

Jon Ward contributed to this story, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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