In the early morning of May 3, Bernie Moran woke to flames shooting from the house being built across the street from his in Northeast Baltimore.
"I looked out my window and there was just a big red glow," said Moran, 69, a retired city firefighter. "By the time I called 911, the whole house was in flames. By the time the Fire Department got here, the whole house had collapsed."
The fire was the latest of several that were scaring residents of the Rosemont East neighborhood in the past two years. Now, authorities say one man who lived in the community set the fires, most within blocks and all within walking distance of the house where he grew up and still lives, in the 3800 block of Pinewood Ave.
John Paul Newcomb, 48, was charged this week with the arsons. Police charging documents say he confessed to burning six houses in the city, a shed at a fast-food restaurant in the city and another house owned by his employer, Schmidt Bakery in Fullerton, Baltimore County. He is being held without bail at the city's Central Booking and Intake Center.
No one was killed or injured in the fires, which date to September 2006 and caused more than a half-million dollars in damage.
"I think we'd have to say it's an unusual case," said Baltimore Fire Marshal Robert G. Doedderlein. He and Battalion Commander Medford "Bo" Lehrl Jr. said their investigators have been working hard to quell concerns of community residents.
A suspect in the case emerged last month when investigators in Baltimore County were looking into a fire in an unoccupied home on the property of Schmidt Bakery that occurred shortly after 9 a.m. on April 19. Police said they identified Newcomb through video surveillance from the bakery property, where Newcomb had worked.
County police arrested Newcomb on May 15 at his job at the bakery and less than a week later charged him with the city arsons, police said in court documents.
Newcomb "gave [investigators] sufficient information for them to charge him in a series of fires," said Cpl. Michael Hill, a county police spokesman.
Court records show that Newcomb had worked at the bakery for 23 years. The company did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Moran said he has known Newcomb for 20 years and said he was shocked to learn that the man was accused of setting the fires. He said Newcomb was "very friendly" and "got along with everybody. ... He's really had a hard life."
Newcomb worked in sanitation at Schmidt Bakery, according to a voluntary bankruptcy petition he filed in February 2007 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The filing showed that he owed more than $29,000 to unsecured creditors.
No one answered the door yesterday at the suspect's home. His front porch was in disarray, strewn with power tools, a coffee table and three large plastic garbage cans.
The first fire that police charged Newcomb with occurred Sept. 9, 2006, and was started with rags on the corner of a house in the 3800 block of Fleetwood Ave, authorities said. It caused $9,000 in damage to the two-story home, which was under renovation. It was not clear from court records yesterday if investigators had determined the cause of the fire at the time.
Two months later, on Nov. 17, 2006, another fire was set on the rear porch of a home under renovation in the 6500 block of Rosemont Ave. Authorities said it was lit with paper scraps. That fire, set about 7 p.m., caused $15,000 in damage, according to court records. No one was home when the fire broke out.
On Aug. 18, 2007, police said, Newcomb used matches and debris he found in the backyard of a home to light a wood deck on fire at a home in the 3800 block of Fleetwood Ave. The blaze destroyed the deck and heavily damaged the house, causing $150,000 worth of damage.
Three months later, on Nov. 10, another deck was set on fire, using dried leaves and matches, to the rear of a home being renovated the 6400 block of Brook Ave., according to police charging documents. The fire caused $5,000 worth of damage, and at the time was determined to be an act of arson, the documents show.
Police said Newcomb also admitted to setting fire to a shed behind a Popeye's chicken restaurant in the 6600 block of Belair Road on the day after Christmas last year, charging documents show. That fire caused minor damage.
According to charging documents, Newcomb told police that on April 9 of this year he used trash, debris and a match to set fire to a corner of vacant home that was up for sale in the 4000 block of Pinewood Ave. The interior was consumed by flames and the floors collapsed, causing $136,000 in damage, court records show. The cause of that fire at the time was not clear, according to court records.
On May 3, police said, Newcomb set fire to a house about 100 yards from his own home, the one across the street from Bernie Moran.
The house directly next door to the one that caught fire, occupied by Theresa White, 53, and her husband, Anthony, was damaged. And a neighbor's property, about 50 feet away, was seared by flames that melted yellow siding off the wall that faced the burning home.
White said the brightness of the flames awoke her that early morning. She called her husband "crazy" for running out of their home half-dressed and trying to wet their house down with a garden hose.
She and her husband had lived in the neighborhood since April last year. But she now realizes that in that short time, there were a lot of fires in their area. And after the April 3 fire three blocks away, people began to openly worry about an arsonist living among them.
"We used to hear firetrucks all the time," she said. "All the time."