- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 7, 2004

For nearly 12 months a task force of investigators has been trying to find the serial arsonist responsible for a series of suspicious fires in the metropolitan Washington area that began one year ago Friday.

Yet despite the involvement of seasoned local and federal arson experts, the list of fires has grown, as more suspicious blazes have occurred in the District and its Northern Virginia and Maryland suburbs.

“We have had an enormous amount of fires that we have evaluated and we’ve come up with ways to identify fires we believe are the work of the serial arsonist,” said Victor Stagnero, lead arson investigator for the Prince George’s County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

Since March 5, 2003, there have been 18 fires and one attempted arson in the District. There have been 14 fires in Prince George’s County, and one each in Montgomery, Alexandria and Fairfax counties.

Of the 36 cases, 15 have been conclusively linked to one another. The others are considered similar enough in nature to be included among the blazes being investigated by the task force.

According to FBI statistics, only 16 percent of arson investigations end in arrests. Authorities involved in the Washington area cases concede that an arrest is likely to occur when a citizen provides a tip leading to a suspect or suspects behind at least some of the blazes. A reward fund totals $35,000.

“Somebody out there knows this person, and they know that they are out those times of night or early morning when the fires are occurring,” Mr. Stagnero said. Investigators are following up on about 150 new tips generated by a sketch of a possible suspect released last month. Profilers say the suspect is likely to be angry or troubled, and may be setting the fires to relieve stress.

At the University of Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, firefighters completing refresher courses are being trained to preserve evidence once a blaze is controlled. The change in procedure has enabled investigators to examine rubble from some of the fires while the scene is still warm.

“They get the arson investigators in as quickly as they can,” said Steven Edwards, the director of the program in College Park.

Potential evidence has been shipped to an ATF laboratory opened last year in Beltsville for analysis, enabling investigators to determine whether they should be included in the probe.

A June 5 fire in the District killed Lou Edna Jones, 86. Ten other persons have been injured.

Nearly a dozen residents of homes that have been damaged declined to discuss the fires, although some admitted they were concerned that no arrests have been made. Authorities are advising people to remain alert, keep their porch lights on at night, and consider installing motion-activated lighting on their property.

Investigators have consulted with Seattle authorities where scores of arson fires that occurred in four counties over a six-month period ending in January 1993 were linked to a single suspect.

Paul Kenneth Keller, then 27, pleaded guilty to setting 32 fires and admitted to setting 44 others. He was sentenced to 75 years in prison. Keller was turned in by his father after the fires destroyed millions of dollars in property.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, an estimated 44,500 arson fires that occurred in structures nationwide in 2002 claimed 350 lives and caused $919 million in property damage. Insured losses from all types of arsons, including vehicles, topped $1.1 billion the same year.

“You just can’t automatically assume that a fire has been intentionally set until you prove it,” said Stephen Austin of the International Association of Arson Investigators, based in St. Louis.

Because nearly all the District-area fires have occurred in occupied buildings, investigators have had to rule out accidental and mechanical means before they can classify them as arsons.

“We have had members killed recently in arson fires,” said Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the Washington-based International Association of Firefighters.

The latest were Lt. Trent Kirk and Pvt. Charles Zachary, both 39, who died of injuries suffered June 15, 2003, in a fire at a Memphis discount store. That city has lost nine firefighters to arson since 1987.

“Every fire has the potential to claim lives; to purposely set one is just plain stupid,” Mr. Zack said.

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