- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 19, 2004

Authorities yesterday charged three more suspects — including a probationary firefighter — in connection with the arsons that destroyed or damaged 26 new houses in an upscale subdivision in Charles County, Md.

Arrested and charged in connection with the Dec. 6 fires were Patrick Stephen Walsh, 20, of Fort Washington, Md.; Jeremy Daniel Parady, 20, of Accokeek, Md.; and Michael McIntosh Everhart, 20, of Waldorf, Md., authorities said.

A fourth suspect, Aaron Lee Speed, 21, of Waldorf, who worked as a guard for the security company hired by the developer, was arrested Thursday after 10 days of investigation.

Mr. Walsh, Mr. Parady and Mr. Everhart will appear tomorrow on federal charges before a magistrate judge in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

Mr. Parady is listed on the Web site of the Accokeek Volunteer Fire Department as a “riding member” of that department, which helped fight the Dec. 6 fires.

Authorities associated with the ongoing investigation would not comment on a possible motive or connection between the three newly charged suspects and Mr. Speed.

The fires at the Hunters Brooke development in Indian Head have been called the largest residential arson case in Maryland history. Ten unoccupied houses were destroyed and 16 others were damaged. Arson was attempted at 10 other houses, investigators said.

A spokesman for the Accokeek Volunteer Fire Department, without naming Mr. Parady, said the arrested firefighter is a probationary member of fewer than six months’ standing.

The unnamed firefighter, who has been suspended, did not participate in fighting live fires, the spokesman said.

The chief of the Accokeek department, Jeff Cox, declined to comment yesterday. The department has about 50 active members.

Details concerning the other two suspects were incomplete yesterday.

A man who would identify himself only as Mr. Walsh’s father when reached at his home in Fort Washington said he was “100 percent sure his son is innocent.”

Scott Ackerman, a former neighbor of Mr. Everhart’s, said he thinks the suspect’s family lives in the same neighborhood as Mr. Speed.

He described Mr. Everhart as “a typical young kid, playing music and working on a car.”

Mr. Speed was arraigned Friday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt on arson charges, following his arrest Thursday. Judge William Connelly ordered Mr. Speed to be held in U.S. marshals’ custody without bond until a detention hearing Tuesday.

Mr. Speed was a security guard for Security Services of America, the company contracted to guard the upscale development. He admitted knowing of a plan to set fire to houses there and being present during the lighting of the fires, according to court documents.

Mr. Speed failed a voluntary polygraph test Thursday at the Charles County Sheriff’s Office, including questions about his involvement in the fires, according to the affidavit.

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] hand-held 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, who is married, left the security company in August because he thought officials were unsympathetic when an infant son died in April, the criminal complaint states. He returned to the company in October.

Authorities 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.

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

One of his neighbors said he was genuinely surprised to learn of Mr. Speed’s purported involvement.

“We talked a few times, and he seems like a nice guy,” said Melvin Pierce, who has been Mr. Speed’s neighbor for the past three years. “Yes, I was [surprised] to hear he might have had something to do with it.”

Evidence from the arson site has 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 flammable 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 phone 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. 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.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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