A security guard hired to watch over an upscale housing development under construction in Southern Maryland was arrested yesterday and charged with setting fires that damaged or destroyed 26 houses there, the U.S. attorney's office said.
Waldorf resident Aaron Lee Speed, 21, an employee of Security Services of America, was charged with arson in the fires Dec. 6 that caused $10 million damage at the Hunters Brooke development in Indian Head in Charles County.
Speed, described as someone who wanted to be a firefighter, is scheduled to appear this morning in federal court in Greenbelt.
Investigators have said they believe the blazes were set by more than one person, and sources said last night that a second arrest could follow soon.
"They have the wrong man," Speed told WUSA-TV in Washington yesterday after his parents' home was searched but before he was arrested. "Everything that I'm doing, I'm doing willingly to prove that I am innocent."
Speed has experienced personal hardships in the past year, family members said, including the death of a twin baby due to intestinal complications. But they said that he and his wife, Tamara, have coped with the loss.
"He has a wife and a child, and one on the way," said Crystal Gladkoff, 20, Speed's sister-in-law. "He has no reason to do this. I think we're all mad, because Aaron is incapable of doing this."
Gladkoff said Speed took a lie detector test and that he had cooperated with law enforcement officials without understanding that he was a suspect.
"We all think the same," said Nicole Berrier, another sister-in-law. "He has too much to lose."
The Hunters Brooke development, 35 miles south of Washington, has been unpopular among some longtime residents, who called it a blight on their bucolic lifestyle. Early on in the investigation, there was speculation that the fires could have been set by eco-terrorists who believed the houses would damage a nearby bog, but authorities said that no evidence emerged to support that theory.
A spokeswoman for the parent company of Security Services of America, which had been hired to keep intruders out of the construction site, said last night that executives were willing to help.
"We are fully cooperating with the authorities in their investigation of this matter," said Linda Auwers, general counsel for ABM Industries Inc. of San Francisco.
Last week, Speed told The Washington Post that he saw a blue van at Hunters Brooke the morning of the fires. Speed, who was a security supervisor at the development, said he was visiting the guard on duty at the time. He said he could see a driver but wasn't sure if anyone else was in the van.
"It basically looked like they were trying to watch," he told the newspaper. "I saw it lingering around. ... It kept passing by the construction site entrance."
Firefighters responding to the blazes had reported seeing a van leave the scene, the Charles County sheriff's office has said.
Speed grew up in a modest home in the 800 block of Copley Ave. in Waldorf. Neighbor Betty Cochran said police searched the house about 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. They towed away a car.
"All of a sudden, all you-know-what broke loose," she said. "They were up and down the road. It was a big mess."
Cochran said she has known Speed since he was in middle school. She said she had nothing bad to say about him, and that neighbors were upset about the police search and arrest.
"I'm very heartbroken about it," she said. "I hope it's not true. It will be very, very, very hard for me to believe that he would do anything like this."
Tamara Speed's stepfather, David Jaillet, called him a "decent person."
Asked whether he thought Speed was involved in the fires, Jaillet said: "No, I don't think he is. It's not in his character."
Melvin Pierce, a Copley Avenue resident, called Speed "a nice dude" and a "family man."
"I don't know what to say," he said. "I am just hoping that it ain't him."
A woman described as Speed's former foster mother, Faith Kern of Waldorf, told the Associated Press that an agency called Alternatives for Youth and Families asked her to take Speed in about 18 months ago. She said he had been living with his mother and stepfather but needed someplace else to stay. Kern declined to say why he left his parents' house, but said that "he was overcoming his anger."
"He has overcome some difficulties in his life, but he made progress with me," Kern said. She said Speed lived with her for about six months.
"I found him to be a very likable person," she said. "I don't think he would do anything like that, and I'm really sorry he's a suspect."
The head of Alternatives for Youth and Families, which is based in Charlotte Hall, declined to comment on whether Speed was a client. Executive Director Eugene Johnson said the organization specializes in outpatient mental health programs for people between the ages of 5 and 22, including therapeutic foster care.
Sun staff writers Ryan Davis, Stephanie Hanes and Sarah Schaffer, and the Associated Press contributed to this article.