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S. Md. fire suspect put on home detention

GREENBELT -- A man arrested last month on charges of helping to set fires that caused $10 million in damage to houses under construction in Charles County was ordered released on home detention after a court hearing in U.S. District Court here yesterday.

Michael E. Gilbert, 21, of Fort Washington was released despite a prosecutor's argument that he should remain in custody to safeguard the public.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Donna Sanger said arson is often a repeat offense and hinted that members of the group allegedly involved in the fires, which called itself "The Family" and liked racing their cars, might be responsible for setting others.

"They had two passions: off-street racing, and they liked setting fires," Sanger said. She could not be reached after the hearing to elaborate.

But Gilbert's court-appointed lawyer, Robert C. Bonsib, argued that his client -- one of six men arrested in connection with the fires -- posed no threat.

He said Gilbert has no prior offenses and his strong community ties warranted release to home detention, with electronic monitoring, pending trial.

Bonsib said his client has at least three witnesses who can establish he was at his girlfriend's house in Waldorf when the fires were set in the Hunters Brooke subdivision near Indian Head in the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 6.

Gilbert has denied that he was present and involved in setting the fires, but he has admitted knowing in advance of the plans, according to statements that federal investigators have filed in court.

Three of the others arrested, in statements to authorities, have said Gilbert was present and participated. But Bonsib said their accounts are untrustworthy because they have told conflicting stories about their own roles.

"We believe we have strong and compelling evidence to show Mr. Gilbert was not involved and was not present" when the fires were set, Bonsib said

After listening to arguments for nearly an hour, U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles B. Day decided to let Gilbert go home, under close supervision of his mother, Christine Gilbert, and his grandmother.

"Happy, that's it," Christine Gilbert said of her reaction to Day's decision.

The grandmother agreed to put up her house and an adjacent house that she owns where Gilbert's mother lives to guarantee Gilbert's appearance at future court hearings. The houses and property are worth about $150,000 each, Bonsib said.

The other five men arrested in connection with the fires at Hunters Brooke are to be arraigned tomorrow.

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