- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

Investigators said yesterday they have many theories and bundles of evidence, but no solid leads as to who set fire to scores of luxury homes in a newly constructed upscale Indian Head, Md., subdivision on Monday.

A source close to the multiagency arson investigation team said the investigators appeared to be stumped. The lack of suspects reminded the source of the early days of the hunt for the Washington-area snipers, who in October 2002 killed 10 persons and wounded three others during a three-week period before they were arrested.

Still, investigators remained determined yesterday to close in on the arsonists, who caused at least $10 million in damage at the Hunters Brooke development off Route 225.

“We have made significant progress,” said Maryland State Fire Marshal William E. Barnard, adding that investigators were expected to finish their work last night at the massive crime scene. “We have a number of leads … and we will follow each and everyone of those to the end.”

Marshal Barnard also said the investigators have not ruled out any motives, which include ecoterrorism, insurance fraud, hate crime or revenge by disgruntled construction workers. Investigators think that two or more people set the fires to the houses, which were in various stages of construction. No one was injured.

The early morning fires destroyed 10 houses and damaged 16. Arson is suspected in 20 of the house fires and arson was attempted at 10 others, investigators said yesterday.

The failed attempts yielded some evidence on the method used to start the blazes. Several open containers — similar to buckets — that held a liquid accelerant were found, according to two law-enforcement sources who spoke with the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.

The buckets did not have a wick, and the sources did not know what mechanism would have been used to ignite the accelerant. The materials were sent to a federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) laboratory for testing.

Authorities are still looking for a blue van seen on the morning of the fires in the development, a subdivision of colonial-style homes priced between $400,000 and $500,000. Each house sits on a quarter-acre lot.

Authorities received a few tips about the van on the hot line they set up for the case. But the volume of calls has been light, and the tips so far have not led to a suspect, members of the investigation team said.

Kevin Perkins, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Baltimore field office, said the investigation is still in its infancy.

“We are only 72 hours out of the incident,” he said. “There are a lot of people to talk to, a lot of avenues to go down. The investigation portion will mature as we continue now.”

Marshal Barnard and other top officials on the arson investigation team vowed to pursue this case until the culprits are behind bars.

“We are not going to leave any stone unturned,” Marshal Barnard said. “We will follow every trail to the end.”

Authorities tried to reassure the community that they will be on the case as the investigation shifts from the crime scene to a crime laboratory, where evidence will be analyzed.

“Just because they will not see the uniforms and the vehicles does not mean that we are not out there” investigating the case, said Theresa Stoop, special agent in charge of the ATF’s Baltimore office.

Mr. Perkins said ecoterrorism is still a viable motive, even though no environmental group has taken responsibility for the arson.

“I’m not going to wait for someone to put a claim on an Internet Web site,” he said. “There are too many leads out there to be covered.”

The Hunters Brooke homes were being built next to the Araby Bog, a magnolia bog, which is a unique wetland environment that harbors a rare mix of plants and animals. Environmental groups and county residents have fought the development’s construction for years.

Charles County Sheriff Fred E. Davis said the arson has rattled the community. County and business leaders have set up a $82,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the arson case.

“We are not used to this kind of crime here,” he said yesterday. “It’s got people very upset, and of course, everybody has a theory.”

Many of the people moving into Hunters Brooke are black. They are part of a growing black population in Charles County. But, local residents and a black woman who recently moved into Hunters Brooke derided the theory that the fires were racially motivated.

An unidentified spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmentalist group that lends its name to many acts of ecoterrorism, said in an e-mail sent to The Washington Times that no claims of responsibility have been made.

The spokesman did say in the e-mail that developments such as Hunters Brooke are targeted by ecoterrorists because they “support the consumer classes in their quest for more space to house their possessions — and are not necessary in terms of actual required space to live in.”

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