The swift arrest of Darrell L. Brooks will send a message to criminals that they cannot get away with such "barbaric" acts of retaliation, Mayor Martin O'Malley said.
"These children will not have died in vain," he said. "This is not the future of our city. This has to become part of our past."
Police said Brooks, of the 1200 block of N. Eden St., was linked to the fire by forensic evidence, which they declined to discuss. They were questioning other people in the case and said Brooks also is a suspect in the Oct. 3 firebombing of the Dawsons' house, which the family escaped.
Wednesday's blaze killed Angela Maria Dawson, 36, and her children: Keith and Kevin Dawson, 8; Carnell Dawson Jr., 10; Juan Ortiz, 10; and LaWanda Ortiz, 14. Dawson's husband, Carnell Dawson Sr., 43, was badly burned and remained in critical condition last night at an area hospital.
Angela and Carnell Dawson had angered Brooks and some others in the neighborhood for alerting police to drug activity and other crime around their rowhouse at 1401 E. Preston St., police said.
"They acted heroically," Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said. "They did the things good citizens should do."
Earlier this month, the Dawsons had taken an 18-year-old neighbor, John L. Henry, to court on assault and property-destruction charges. Brooks lives next door to Henry, and police said the two know each other. Officials declined to say whether there is any connection between the court case and the arsons.
Brooks has a long history of run-ins with city police with a string of armed robbery, assault, drug and other charges dating at least to 1998. That fact fanned community anger over a criminal justice system perceived as not having done enough to keep criminals behind bars.
They compared the fight to reclaim the city from drug dealers to the battle against international terrorism and the hunt for the Washington-area sniper.
"I know that we do not have the manpower on the Police Department to man every corner. That's what we've got the military for," said City Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, who called the governor's office with a request to send in the Guard. "The military is being used on the sniper, with the spy plane. Well, this is terror, too."
State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden said the idea of calling in the Guard was "not over the top for me."
"We have terrorist cells of juvenile drug dealers," McFadden said. "We liken it to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. Same kind of thing. And it's all over the city. And they have no fear of retribution. It's just a brazen attack when you firebomb a person's house two times within a month. ... We want to respond just like the Israelis would respond when they're bombed. You bomb them one day, they take action the next day."
Norris said he would consider using state police to assist with drug enforcement but dismissed the possibility of using the Guard.
The politicians called for a meeting today with state probation officials to urge them to crack down on probation violators.
"All they get is a slap on the wrist and come out the revolving door," said Councilwoman Pamela V. Carter, who was the Dawsons' backdoor neighbor.
Brooks was in Police Department custody late yesterday. No bail had been set.
Several city leaders expressed concern that the killings would make it even harder to get residents to report crimes to police - something the city has been encouraging as part of the anti-drug Baltimore Believe campaign.
"It rocks the confidence of those good citizens," said Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector.
Added Council President Sheila Dixon, "I do not want to see Baltimore under siege by some petty drug dealers."
"This is going to be, I hope, a tipping point in this city," Norris said
Relatives of the Dawsons complained yesterday that police did not do enough to protect the family. John Robert Harrington Jr., Angela Dawson's brother, disputed reports that officials offered to relocate the family through a witness protection program.
"The police weren't trying to help the way they're claiming," Harrington said.
Prosecutors and Norris said the relocation offer was made, but the Dawsons declined, saying they did not want to be run out of their home by drug dealers. Norris also said police made several visits to the family's home after the Oct. 3 fire, ignited by two Molotov cocktails thrown through first-floor windows. While the community's anger is understandable, Norris said, that anger should be directed at those responsible for the crime, not at the government.
"It's about time we got the outrage focused in the right direction," he said.
All morning long and into the afternoon in the East Baltimore neighborhood of Oliver, people walked up to the charred house to see where the family had died. Many brought teddy bears as mementos. The Eden Street entrance to the house had become a shrine to the Dawson family. More than 50 teddy bears of all sizes covered the steps, along with balloons and a poster that read: "Think Of The Children And Please!!! Stop The Madness."
Jeffrey Easton brought an empty water jug, dropped in $5 and some change, then left the jug near the shrine for donations. Plans were to collect donations throughout the weekend.
"I'm glad I was able to give something," said Easton, who lives nearby on Central Avenue.
Relatives of the Dawsons were working yesterday to establish a fund named in memory of Angela Dawson - The Angel Family Fund - at Bank of America. They were also making funeral arrangements at March Funeral Home.
"Everybody is feeling this," Principal Lucretia Coates said, describing emotions that went beyond the pain and sadness of losing four pupils.
"I'm outraged," she said. "To think that these children lost their lives because of retaliation from drug dealers. I think this community should be outraged and should not suffer in silence or in fear."
Sun staff writers Dick Irwin, M. Dion Thompson and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this article.