2 or more people may have set fires


INDIAN HEAD -- More than one person is believed to have set the fires that destroyed 10 homes under construction and damaged 16 others in a Southern Maryland subdivision, investigators said yesterday.

Deputy State Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor said investigators also discovered 11 other arson attempts in the Hunters Brooke subdivision. Evidence at those houses, which were not damaged, is of "monumental value" to the investigation, he said.

"We are strongly considering that this act had to have been perpetrated by more than one person," Taylor said. He said the investigation is "still in its infancy," and it is too early to speculate on how many people were involved or their motives.

Taylor said a report by some news outlets that racial epithets had been spray-painted on some of the houses in the subdivision -- many of which are being purchased by African-Americans -- was "totally inaccurate."

Investigators said they are seeking information about a dark blue van seen leaving the area when the first firefighters arrived early Monday. Charles County Sheriff Frederick E. Davis said authorities do not have a description of the driver or a license plate number.

Michael A. Schlatman, president of the International Association of Arson Investigators, said yesterday that he is confident that those who set the fires will be caught.

"People believe the myth that fire destroys all the evidence," he said. "It does not. It ... burns the evidence into the scene. It creates evidence as it burns."

Schlatman said the timing of the fires in the pre-dawn hours suggests that it is unlikely that they were an act of juvenile vandalism. But he also doubts it will turn out to be eco-terrorism.

"Environmental groups should have claimed responsibility by now," he said. "If it was an act of civil disobedience, they would have let us know. ... That's what makes it terror."

Investigators have interviewed several residents who were involved in a court battle to try to stop the housing development on environmental grounds. They contended that runoff would destroy an environmentally sensitive wetland known as Araby Bog.

Taylor declined to reveal details about the new evidence, but said "it certainly enhances our ability to solve the crime."

County commissioners said yesterday that they are offering an $82,000 reward for information leading to arrest and conviction of those responsible.

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