No evidence found of racism in arsons

GREENBELT -- A search of the homes and vehicles of men accused of setting fires at a Charles County housing development produced no immediate evidence that the crime was racially motivated, according to court papers filed yesterday.

Investigators seized muddy shoes, computers, vehicle floor mats, telephone billing records, a propane torch and a map of home sites at the Hunters Brooke subdivision, among other items, according to a list filed with the U.S. District Court here.

However, there was no mention of "white supremacist, neo-Nazi" paraphernalia that investigators had listed in warrants as being among the items sought.

The warrants had led to speculation that the fires, which caused $10 million in damage to houses under construction in the Hunters Brooke development, might have been racially motivated. Many of those buying houses in Hunters Brooke are African-American; all those arrested in connection with the fires are white.

Law enforcement officials played down racism as a possible motive yesterday.

"At this point, there's no evidence of a racial motivation or hate crime," said a law enforcement source who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Nothing of a racial nature's been discovered yet."

The documents released yesterday did not include papers showing what investigators found when searching the home of one of the six suspects, Patrick Steven Walsh, 21, of Fort Washington.

Walsh is described in court papers as the ringleader of a street racing club called "The Family" or the "Unseen Cavaliers." At least four of those charged in the fires belonged to the group.

The Associated Press quoted two law enforcement sources as saying that a copy of The Anarchist's Cookbook -- a book with instructions on making explosives and setting fires -- was seized from Walsh's home.

But Walsh's attorney, William Purpura, said the book is not listed on a copy of papers he was given that detailed items seized. "To the best of my knowledge, there was no Anarchist's Cookbook seized," Purpura said.

Different versions of the Anarchist's Cookbook -- written in 1971 during the time of counterculture protests against the Vietnam War -- are readily available over the Internet and in bookstores.

On Monday, a federal grand jury indicted Walsh and four other men who were arrested last month in connection with the fire. They are charged with arson, conspiracy and related offenses. A sixth man remains in custody after his arrest, but the grand jury has not returned an indictment against him.

Although arsons are generally prosecuted as a violation of state law, the high-profile Charles County case drew the attention of federal authorities.

Federal prosecutors claimed jurisdiction by asserting the fires damaged property "used in interstate commerce." The indictments noted that the builder is based in Miami.

Herbert Better, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice, said that section of federal law is often used to prosecute serious drug and gun crimes and other offenses that also are violations of state law.

"This is nothing out of the ordinary," he said, referring to the decision by federal authorities to prosecute the arson case.

Another former federal prosecutor, W. Warren Hamel, said there are several reasons to prosecute a high-profile case in federal rather than state court -- including the greater resources the federal government can bring to bear.

In addition, he said, federal sentencing guidelines generally set much stiffer penalties than do states for similar offenses. He said that sends a strong message to any would-be copycats.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Donna Sanger said federal prosecutors took the lead in the case with the agreement of Charles County State's Attorney Leonard C. Collins Jr.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun