A house in rural northwestern Baltimore County burned to the ground early yesterday - just hours before the 62-year-old man who had lived there his entire life was to be evicted, authorities said.
Initially, firefighters feared that William E. Tinkler had died in the blaze, which was seen by a neighbor about 2 a.m. Once the fire was extinguished, investigators sifted through rubble using a backhoe and search dogs.
But when they found no trace of the reclusive man or his two cats, investigators began scouring the nearby woods for Tinkler, who lost his 1.22-acre property in the 10400 block of Lyons Mill Road this summer after failing to pay $5,579 in taxes.
By early afternoon, they found a pile of Tinkler's tools and clothes and some food in the thick woods surrounding the house and two outbuildings, leading authorities to believe he was still alive, said Bill Toohey, a county police spokesman.
Calling the fire suspicious, police called in search dogs, helicopters, the county's SWAT team and officers from a unit of the Maryland Natural Resources police trained to search heavily wooded areas.
But by dusk, when they suspended the search, investigators had not found Tinkler.
Police also used an automated phone system to call more than 1,000 residents who live in neighboring communities off Liberty Road, asking them to dial 911 if they saw a man fitting Tinkler's description.
He was described as 6 feet tall, weighing 180 pounds, with gray hair. But police didn't know what he was wearing. Nor did they have a recent photograph to publicize, in part, because he was seen so rarely.
Tinkler's brother hadn't seen him in more than a year, police said.
"He was rather introverted," said neighbor Bill "Buzz" Clagett. "I've lived here 30 years, and I've spoken to him maybe a couple of times."
At one time, Tinkler had done odd jobs for neighbors and worked as a handyman, investigators said. But in recent years, he lived quietly and simply, using only a wood stove for heat.
Tinkler grew up in the house and lived there alone after his mother and grandmother died, said neighbor Alberta Truman. He helped Truman and her husband put a roof on their house in 1979, she said, but they hadn't talked to him since.
"He didn't associate with the neighbors," Truman said. "He tended to his own business, but he didn't bother anybody."
It was unclear yesterday how the fire started and whether it began in the house and spread to a nearby greenhouse and storage building or if each building ignited separately, police and fire officials said.
The property was sold in June for the $5,579 in taxes owed to the county, court records show.
The Randallstown man who purchased it asked the court to issue a "writ of possession," better known as an eviction order, in November. The request was granted by a Circuit Court judge, court papers show.
Tinkler was sent a notice of the order by certified mail, but didn't acknowledge receiving it. "Someone is living in the house but won't answer the door," a process server noted in the court file.
Sheriff's deputies posted signs on the property warning of the scheduled eviction. Deputies also stopped by Tuesday night to see whether Tinkler would need help removing his belongings, said Sheriff R. Jay Fisher.
"He said he would be leaving the house," Fisher said. "Everything seemed fine."