Investigation continues in Laurel playground fires

While several arson incidents that occurred at Laurel community parks in March remain unsolved, city officials and fire investigators say they are making progress with their overall investigation.

Playground fires at Discovery Community Park, on March 3, and Emancipation Community Park, on March 11, each caused more than $100,000 in damages, according to city spokesman Pete Piringer.

In addition, Granville Gude Park had two arson incidents in March: a playground slide was set on fire March 8, and mulch near the outdoor stage caught fire March 22. Piringer said both incidents caused minimal damage.

Police arrested two juveniles in connection with the March 8 fire, who were later charged with arson by Prince George's County Fire investigators. No connection has been made between the juveniles and any of the other fires.

The playground at Discovery Community Park has been fully rebuilt, Piringer said, and city officials will hold a grand reopening event Monday, June 3 from 5 to 7 p.m., with arts and crafts, playground challenges and free refreshments.

Piringer said repairs on the Emancipation Community Park playground have been held up because the entire structure is being relocated to accommodate the upcoming expansion of the Laurel Library.

"They're moving along pretty well," Piringer said about the relocation process, though the reconstruction of the playground has yet to begin.

The Prince George's County Fire Department and Laurel Police are collaborating to investigate the incidents, Piringer said, and they are also looking into other recent fires in Laurel, including at a Bottom Dollar Food grocery store on Jan. 10; at Laurel Fuel Oil on March 6; behind an office building on Laurel Bowie Road on March 20; and at the Empire Buffet restaurant on March 23. A $10,000 reward is being offered for anyone who provides information that leads to an arrest and conviction.

Prince George's County Fire spokesman Mark Brady said the team is investigating the fires as a stretch of incidents that occurred in a close geographic area over a relatively short period of time.

"We do believe they were all set fires," Brady said, and that the playground fires specifically were set "with the intention to destroy."

Brady said the majority of fires on playgrounds are accidents caused by people carelessly using matches or discarding cigarettes, but that every local playground fire receives a thorough investigation.

Prince George's County Fire Chief Marc Bashoor said that playground fires are unusual.

"That's part of what the investigators look at: trying to determine what drives someone to affect kids," Bashoor said.

Bashoor said the Prince George's Fire and Laurel Police tip lines have received a number of calls from people with information on Laurel's playground fires. Additional tips have come in since the investigative team increased its award amount to the current $10,000, but that is fairly typical, Bashoor said.

"The local community has definitely contributed to the tips coming in," he said. "We're going to comb through every tip and every piece of information."

Bashoor said he has dealt with incidents at local playgrounds during his three decades with the Prince George's Fire Department, but none have involved so many parks and establishments in close proximity with each other. 

"I don't recall a situation with this many smaller incidents," he said. 

In Howard County, two incidents of playground arson were attributed to youth in the last three years.

A June 2011 playground fire at Huntington Park in Columbia caused $40,000 in damage. Howard County Police arrested and charged a 15-year-old Laurel male in connection with the incident the following month.

In October 2009, arson at a playground near Columbia's Jeffers Hill Elementary School caused about $50,000 in damage, and three 12-year-old boys were charged. The playground reopened about a year later. 

Community reaction

"We're still continuing to look at a lot of different areas," Laurel Mayor Craig Moe said. "We encourage people to say something if they see something."

Laurel resident Sharon Wentland said she was shocked when she first heard about the playground fires in March.

"It's amazing how much they damaged them," Wentland said. "What is wrong with people?"

"I really want to know who did it," said Jocelyn Fogle, 10, who lives within walking distance of Discovery Community Park.

"(Discovery) was a very fantastic park," she said. "I just wasn't happy" when it burned.

Jenny Ripley, a Laurel resident since 1967, said she had never seen "such mindless destruction."

"Laurel shouldn't be in the news for that," Ripley said.

Following the March playground fires, city officials organized a Community Fun Day at Discovery Community Park in an effort to reach out to residents and keep them updated on the repair process. A second Community Fun Day was held in April at Emancipation Community Park.

"It's positive that the (city) council understands and appreciates the fact that kids need to go and play and be themselves," Ripley said.

Karon Gatling, 11, said she was glad to see the Discovery Community Park playground fully repaired.

"I'm happy because kids can play on it again," she said. "It was hard to find other parks."

Moe said that the city has not had any major issues with its parks since the fires in March.

"We're not going to tolerate it," Moe said. "People are going to come together in the parks and have good times and be safe."

Brady said he remains optimistic as the investigation continues.

"We do believe someone out there knows who has committed these crimes, he said. "We continue to seek help from the community for providing any information."

To anonymously leave a tip about the arson incidents, contact the Laurel Police Department's tip line at 301-498-7465 or the Prince George's County fire tip line at 301-77-ARSON.

This story has been updated.

Copyright © 2018, Laurel Leader - Laurel, Maryland News, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad