Wednesday, December 8, 2004

INDIAN HEAD, Md. — Authorities yesterday confirmed that as many as seven houses were deliberately set ablaze Monday in a newly constructed upscale subdivision here, as more than 100 investigators sifted through the ashes of the largest arson case in Maryland history.

Investigators have not ruled out ecoterrorism, or any other motive, as the cause behind the fires that destroyed at least 10 houses at Hunters Brooke, off Route 225 in Charles County, a fire official said yesterday. The development had been opposed by environmentalists for years because it is near a magnolia bog they said would be polluted by the project.

“We have not been able to establish at this point any motive,” said Deputy State Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor.

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

“All of these groups, we are aware of them. We will conduct a logical investigation,” Mr. Maddox said. But, he said, ELF was “not something we are focusing on.”

Marshal Ames, vice president of investor relations for Lennar Corp., which was building the development, said he was outraged by the possibility that the fires might have been set as an act of protest. Damage was estimated at at least $10 million, a figure authorities expect to rise.

“If someone is unhappy that this area has been approved for homeowning, threatening lives and damaging property is the wrong way to disagree,” he said in a telephone interview from the company headquarters in Miami yesterday.

He said the fires will not stop the development from moving forward.

“It will be built. There is insurance coverage for this type of damage,” he said.

The houses were priced at from $400,000 to $500,000.

Last night, WRC-TV (Channel 4) reported that police were looking for the driver of a blue van seen leaving the neighborhood.

Mr. Ames said the fires have upset some prospective buyers, some of whom were days away from closing on their new houses in the development.

“A number of people have had their lives terribly disrupted,” he said. “Many of these families have already sold their existing homes, made moving plans and made significant financial commitments.”

Mr. Ames said he didn’t know how many buyers were affected by the fires. Authorities have not allowed Lennar officials access to the site and provided limited information about the extent of the damage to each house.

Authorities yesterday allowed several families to return to their homes, which were some distance from the crime scene, Marshal Taylor said. One family was not allowed to return to its home because it is located within the 10-acre crime scene.

The number of investigators more than tripled yesterday, growing from about 30 on Monday to more than 100. Local, state and federal agencies, including the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) are investigating the blazes, which also damaged at least 16 houses. Fire officials originally reported that 29 houses were damaged, but lowered that figure yesterday.

Investigators are trying to determine where each of the fires was ignited and whether there were unsuccessful attempts to set fires. Investigators late Monday recovered some evidence, which was taken to the ATF laboratory in Ammendale, Md., ATF Special Agent Mike Campbell said.

“This is one of the largest [crime scenes] areawise that our National Response Team has investigated,” Mr. Campbell said. “You’ve got houses in various stages of construction and various stages of fire damage. It’s a unique scene.”

Since 1997, ELF has taken responsibility for more than 40 acts of arson or property destruction costing more than $100 million nationwide. A spokesman for ELF did not respond to e-mails sent by The Washington Times yesterday and on Monday.

Yesterday, investigators inspected the damaged houses, each situated on a quarter-acre lot. They also conducted interviews with residents and business owners in the community, Marshal Taylor said.

Chemists and engineers are also among the investigators, who are interviewing various persons, including the construction crews, he said.

He said authorities also were conducting interviews with an independent security contractor who was hired by the developer to protect the houses under construction. Several residents said Monday that the security officers had left the area at about 4 a.m. The fires were reported less than an hour later.

“I can’t answer whether they were actually here at the time,” Marshal Taylor said.

Damage was scattered throughout the closely built development. In some cases, houses that were burned nearly to the ground sat next to structures suffering only minimal damage. Some lots were empty; others were just foundations waiting for construction.

Marshal Taylor would not comment on the origin or methods used by the arsonists. “Divulging information compromises an important investigatory tool,” he said.

But he did say that some fires began inside the houses.

“Fires inside some of those houses would not have been readily apparent to firefighters at that time [when they arrived at the scene],” he said.

The Hunters Brooke subdivision was part of a 319-unit development plan to build houses on both sides of the Araby Bog, a wetland area 25 miles south of the District that provides a unique home for plants and animals.

Environmental activists had opposed the development for several years, saying it would pollute the bog and have a negative effect on the Chesapeake Bay.

The posh development also had plenty of other opponents who didn’t agree with the county’s rapid growth in recent years.

“Are some people happy? I’d say so,” said Charles H. Dudley, 81, a lifelong Charles County resident.

His son, Charles W. Dudley, said some resent the influx of newcomers, whom he referred to as “imports.”

“The older residents of Charles County are a little tired of seeing all the imports move in and take over the county,” the younger Mr. Dudley said. “There’s been a tidal wave of imports.”

Scott Grieninger, a 63-year-old owner of an automotive-repair shop called Scooter’s Place not far from Hunters Brooke, said he was among those investigators had interviewed. He said he gave investigators his own arson theory.

“Subcontractors sometimes don’t get paid and they sometimes get tired of waiting for their money, and I’ve seen subcontractors do all kinds of things,” he said.

He said the fires would not have been difficult to start. Inside the houses under construction, workers had left turbo heaters, which are industrial heating fans that run on propane or kerosene. “All you needed was someone who wanted to do it,” he said.

Mike Routt, a 36-year-old mechanic at the shop, said he was among the residents who opposed Hunters Brooke because the area didn’t have the schools or other infrastructure necessary to support new neighbors.

“There were a lot of people ticked off because of it,” he said.

Environmentalists sued the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers last year, saying the agencies had violated the Clean Water Act by granting permits that allowed construction at the site.

In July, a judge denied a request for an injunction against construction of the development, but ordered the Corps to provide a more thorough explanation of its decision to authorize the sewer line and a road in the subdivision. The Corps filed an appeal of that decision the same day of the ruling.

• Matthew Cella contributed to this report.

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