- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 18, 2004

A security guard for an upscale subdivision in Charles County, Md., has admitted knowing of a plan to set fire to houses there and being present during the lighting of the fires, which caused $10 million in damage, according to court documents.

Aaron Lee Speed, 21, of Waldorf, Md., was arraigned in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt yesterday on arson charges, after having been arrested Thursday. Judge William Connelly ordered Mr. Speed to be held in U.S. marshals’ custody without bond until a detention hearing Tuesday.

Several others were being questioned at the Charles County Sheriff’s Office in La Plata last night, FBI spokesman Barry Maddox said.

Mr. Maddox said no additional charges had been levied. More information would follow, he said, but did not give details.

On a phone message recorded at 11 p.m., Vickie LeDuc, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore, said “reports of additional arrests are inaccurate.” She said another update would be made this morning.

The fires, which broke out Dec. 6 at the Hunters Brooke subdivision in Indian Head, have been called the largest arson case in Maryland’s history. Ten unoccupied houses were destroyed, and 16 others were damaged. Authorities said arson was attempted at 10 other houses.

According to a seven-page criminal complaint, Mr. Speed — a guard for Security Services of America (SSA) — failed a voluntary polygraph test Thursday at the Charles County Sheriff’s Office, including questions about his involvement in the fires.

When authorities challenged his account, he changed his story, admitting that he was on the scene when the fires were being started and that he knew of a plot by others to set fires at the development, the court documents show. He also said he told others how to gain access to the site.

Asked how the fires might have started, Mr. Speed said “by someone pouring an accelerant, followed by someone lighting it … [with a] handheld propane torch.”

Fire investigators found a small propane torch at the arson site.

“It would take approximately 15 minutes to set each house on fire, and one full hour for the house to be fully engulfed in flames,” Mr. Speed later said, according to the criminal complaint.

Asked who might have set the fires, Mr. Speed said “someone who works at the site and recently experienced a great loss.”

Mr. Speed left the security company in August because he thought SSA officials were unsympathetic when his infant son died in April, the criminal complaint states. He returned to the company in October.

Authorities have investigated several theories about who started the fires, including that they were the work of ecoterrorists outraged over the subdivision’s proximity to a rare bog or of racists upset about blacks moving into the area.

Wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned on the back with a green-hooded skeleton holding a dart board and a dart, Mr. Speed answered Judge Connelly’s questions about understanding his rights with short affirmatives yesterday during his court appearance.

John Chamble, Mr. Speed’s court-appointed attorney, argued against federal prosecutor Donna Sanger’s request to confine his client until Tuesday’s hearing, saying he should be released.

Mr. Speed faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison for each count of arson, if convicted.

Evidence from the arson site have been turned over to analysts with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI. Laboratory results showed the fire debris contained a mixture of toluene and methyl isobutyl ketone, two ignitable fluids not easily available to the public.

Authorities said they are continuing forensic analysis of items recovered from the crime scene and other locations. DNA testing is incomplete, but none of the testing has resulted in a match with Mr. Speed, according to court documents.

Mr. Speed initially told investigators he left his security post at Wakefield Apartments in Waldorf when his shift ended at 3 a.m. on Dec. 6. He said he went to his home in Waldorf until 7:30 a.m., when he drove to Hunters Brooke after learning of the fires.

But cellular records show Mr. Speed made a call to another security guard working at Hunters Brooke at 3:21 a.m. The call connected to a cell tower at Route 301 in White Plains, south of Mr. Speed’s home and in the direction of the housing development.

The records also show that Mr. Speed talked to the guard again at 5:05 a.m., when he had said he was home asleep. However, the call connected to a cell tower north of Mr. Speed’s residence, showing he was not at home.

The security guard at Hunters Brooke, who is not identified in the documents, left at 4 a.m. He initially told investigators he left at 4:45 a.m. because his shift ended at 5 a.m. and he did not want to lose his job for leaving too early.

Officials with Security Services of America could not be reached for comment yesterday. Officials previously have declined to comment on the case.

Hunters Brooke residents, while disturbed by Mr. Speed’s potential involvement, said they were relieved by the case’s swift resolution.

Sylvester Kelley, 56, a computer engineer who moved into the development last week from Dale City, Va., said he considers the neighborhood safe again after speculation of the motive being racism or ecoterrorism.

“It’s a sense of relief of knowing that the rumors that it was racially motived or done by ecoterrorists were [unfounded]. I’m relieved in the sense that it was just a fanatic with no rhyme or reason.”

John Monts, 35, a machine press operator, said the motive didn’t concern him as much as the fires themselves.

“It doesn’t bother me that a security guard may have set the fires, my uneasiness comes from [the fact] that somebody did it, period,” said Mr. Monts, who moved into the development Nov. 12 with his wife, Sheila, and their two children.

“It’s surprising that somebody on the payroll could have something to do with this. But it is a bit of a relief that they have someone.”

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