- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

INDIAN HEAD, Md. — Investigators said yesterday that more than one person set fire to houses in an upscale subdivision under construction in Charles County on Monday, as authorities searched for the driver of a blue van seen in the area when the blazes broke out.

Investigators said the driver of the full-sized van and any occupants were not suspects, but could be witnesses. Firefighters noticed the van in the Hunters Brooke area when they were responding to the fires, which caused an estimated $10 million in losses, destroying 10 houses and damaging 16 others.

“We want to talk, obviously, to the driver, occupants, of that van who may have seen something,” said Capt. Joseph C. Montminy with the Charles County Sheriff’s Office. “We have broadcast a lookout to police in this area. No, we are not going to stop every blue van we see. If we saw a blue van in this area that looked out of place, we might stop it.”

Investigators, who were expected to complete their investigation at the scene today, said that fires were set at 19 houses and that the other seven were damaged by exposure. Attempts were made to torch at least 11 other houses in the subdivision, investigators said.

The houses, located off Route 225, were priced between $400,000 and $500,000.

The failed attempts provided fire technicians with important evidence, said Deputy State Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor, who declined to identify the method used to torch the houses.

“It’s more than likely more than one [suspect],” said Barry Maddox, a spokesman for the FBI’s Baltimore field office.

Meanwhile, county and business leaders set up a $82,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest in the arson case.

“We are very sorry to the citizens who have been displaced and to those who planned to purchase homes here,” said F. Wayne Cooper, president of the board of commissioners. “We will not tolerate this kind of activity in Charles County.”

Investigators said they have not ruled out any motives, but said they do not have evidence that factors such as race or ecoterrorism were to blame.

They dismissed as false rumors that racist graffiti had been spray painted on some of the houses, that nails were placed on the street to puncture fire truck tires and that holes had been cut in the floor of some structures to injure firefighters.

Marshal Taylor said fire investigators put spray paint on those houses that were damaged as part of the investigation. The nails and holes in the floors were part of the construction site prior to the fire, law-enforcement sources said.

Many of the new homeowners in Hunters Brooke are black, but Capt. Montminy said the area is racially mixed, “definitely not all white or all black, it’s rural.”

Police have said there hasn’t been any significant increase in cases of racial vandalism or other racially motivated crimes recently.

Black residents in the area also dismissed theories that the arson was racially motivated.

“I’ve never had a problem with racism here. I haven’t heard that. I haven’t felt that, so I’m not going to go with that,” said Sheila Monts, who moved into her Fallen Timber Way residence in Hunters Brooke last month. Mrs. Monts’ home was not damaged in the fires.

Numerous tips for the case have been received by an arson hot line, Capt. Montminy said. One of the tips led authorities on Tuesday night to arrest a man suspected of operating a methamphetamine lab.

Marshal Taylor asked anyone with information about the fires to call 800/492-TIPS.

Investigators are interviewing the security guards at Security Services of America who were hired by the developer to protect the Hunter Brooke subdivision. Residents said a security guard left the subdivision at about 4 a.m. Monday, less than an hour before the fires were set.

“We have questioned the security guard that night, but we cannot discuss the results,” Marshal Taylor said.

Anne Lee, branch manager for Security Services in Lanham, said yesterday the company is cooperating with the investigation.

“We have no comment at this time,” she said.

Marshall Ames, vice president of investor relations for the Lennar Corp., which was building the development, declined to comment about the security company.

“I don’t know anything about the security company,” he said by telephone from the company headquarters in Miami.

“We are not worried right now about the security company,” he said. “We are worried about the people whose lives were affected by this.”

Fire investigators yesterday conducted a grid search of the area. Police officers combed wooded areas, open spaces and the access road into the development, placing yellow flags next to possible pieces of evidence.

Operators of several nearby gas stations said investigators had asked to review their security tapes and questioned whether anyone had filled large containers in the hours before the fire.

The fires were near Araby Bog, which environmentalists say is the largest of 11 magnolia bogs in the world. The Sierra Club has said the development severely would degrade the natural preserve.

Magnolia bogs are unique wetland environments that harbor a rare mix of plants and animals, said Karyn Molines of the Maryland Native Plant Society’s Southern Maryland chapter. The plant society was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers to stop them from issuing permits to developers in that area. In July, a judge asked the Corps to further explain its decision to issue the permits but did not stop construction.

Mr. Maddox on Tuesday said he was not aware of any environmental groups taking credit for the fires. He also had said he was not aware of any recent activity locally by radical environmental groups, such as the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).

An anonymous spokesperson for ELF sent an e-mail to The Washington Times late Tuesday, saying that the group had not received any claims of responsibility for the Hunters Brooke arson.

“We can neither confirm or deny the allegation that the ELF or other environmental direct action groups were involved in this action,” the e-mail read.

Arlo Wagner contributed to this report

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