- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2005

A federal magistrate yesterday ordered a Fort Washington man suspected of taking part in last month’s arsons at a Charles County, Md., development to be released on home detention, the third of six suspects accused of setting the fires to be released from jail.

Michael E. Gilbert, 21, will live at his mother’s home and be monitored electronically while he awaits trial on federal arson, conspiracy and other charges. U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Day ordered Mr. Gilbert’s grandmother to put up two homes she owns in Fort Washington as collateral, both worth about $150,000.

Mr. Gilbert, who appeared in court in a green prison jumpsuit, is expected to be released from custody today, said his attorney, Robert Bonsib. Asked how she felt about her son’s release, Christine Gilbert said, “Happy, that’s it.”

Prosecutors say Mr. Gilbert was one of six men who torched dozens of houses under construction at the upscale Hunters Brooke development in Indian Head. The fires caused $10 million in damage and were the largest case of residential arson in state history.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Donna Sanger said three other defendants said Mr. Gilbert went to Hunters Brooke early Dec. 6 and that he poured chemicals on at least one house and set it ablaze.

The prosecutor described Mr. Gilbert as having a history of substance abuse with alcohol and marijuana. She said he was with the group’s purported ringleader, Patrick S. Walsh, when Mr. Walsh picked up doses of the drug Ecstasy, that he intended to sell, three days before the fire .

Miss Sanger also argued that Mr. Gilbert was a member of the “the family,” a close group formed around a mutual interest in drag racing that prosecutors say was led by Mr. Walsh. Mr. Walsh is thought to have hatched the plan to set fire to Hunters Brooke and persuaded other members of the family to take part.

“They had two passions,” Miss Sanger said. “They had the off-street racing, and they liked to set fires.”

Mr. Bonsib said Mr. Gilbert’s girlfriend said he was with her when the fires were being set at about 4 a.m. April Wilkinson told investigators that she, Mr. Gilbert and some friends were out until about 12:30 that morning and then went to bed.

“We think we have a substantial alibi defense in this case because he wasn’t there,” Mr. Bonsib said after the detention hearing.

Along with Mr. Gilbert, Judge Day has ordered home detention for Michael M. Everhart, 20, and Roy T. McCann Jr., 22. Mr. McCann has not been released from custody because a suitable home has not been found for him while he awaits trial.

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