Police seek leads in nine firebombings in city

The whiskey bottle filled with gasoline, set on fire and thrown against the side of Mavis Mallett's house shattered a double-paned kitchen window, bounced off a screen and landed in a potted plant on a stone walkway outside.

There, the Molotov cocktail burned itself out in a tiger lily. It left behind a small crater in the dirt and black scorch marks on the white aluminum siding of the single-family home on Yosemite Avenue in Northwest Baltimore's Ashburton neighborhood.

Wednesday's pre-dawn attack was the latest in a series of nine similar and apparently random firebombings from one end of the city to the other over the past three weeks that have confounded police, who said they have no leads.

Though no one has been hurt and no significant damage has been reported, police warn that the firebombs could quickly set a house ablaze. Several have been thrown through windows and have burned the insides of homes.

Mallet called herself fortunate. She pointed to the sliding window, now sealed with plastic, and showed how the screen — which caused the incendiary to bounce away from the house — covers only half the window.

"Another 3 inches to the right," Mallett said, and the burning bottle would have landed inside her kitchen.

"It would've been all over," the 70-year-old retired youth worker said, pointing to wooden beams across the ceiling of her home, which was built in 1934. "We would've lost the house to fire"

Police pleaded Thursday for help from the public.

"These are incidents of concern," said department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. He declined to describe the Molotov cocktails in detail, but a police statement urges people to call 911 if they see anyone carrying gasoline in strange containers, such as "portable glass bottles."

Authorities said they have no suspect descriptions, are unaware of a motive and have found no connection between any of the victims, some of whom live miles apart. Police have scoured the Internet, thinking the idea might have been planted in social media, but Maj. Clifton McWhite said, "We came up with nothing."

What is most perplexing is the distance between the attacks and the variety of places targeted. They're not limited to one neighborhood or even to one section of Baltimore. Victims include people living in apartments, in public housing, in rowhouses and single-family homes.

"The pattern appears to be very random," Guglielmi said. Police doubt that one person is committing all the attacks — "given the geography, that seems unlikely," the spokesman said. But police said they do not know whether one group is responsible.

The attacks usually occur between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m. and generally consist of someone throwing the Molotov cocktail against the side of a house or at a window, and then running away.

The first attack was Sept. 13 in South Baltimore's Brooklyn neighborhood. It was six days until the next one, on Haddon Avenue in Northwest. Then on Sept. 22, police said somebody threw a burning glass bottle at the first-floor bedroom window of an apartment building in Reservoir Hill.

The next night, someone targeted a house in Pimlico, and the night after that a house on Longwood Street, near that same neighborhood. There has been an attack each night since Sept. 25 — in North Baltimore's Pen Lucy neighborhood, in East Baltimore and two more in Northwest.

The latest was at Mallet's home, where Latoya Rowlette, a member of Mallet's church group, happened to be staying the night. She awoke to the sound of shattered glass.

The 29-year-old jumped out of bed, bolted the bedroom door shut, grabbed a pair of scissors and called 911, frantically telling the operator that someone had broken in.

"I was prepared to defend myself," said Rowlette, who calmed down a bit after learning there was no intruder. "It's definitely different than the usual violence in Baltimore. Usually it's bullets and shootings that are targeted. A Molotov cocktail is so old-school."