A loud, fiery spectacle woke up residents in Mount Vernon early Friday as at least seven cars spread over multiple blocks went up in flames.
Police said Saturday morning they arrested a “person of interest” in the case late Friday.
Videos of the fires spread across social media and news sites. In the morning, the alarming sight of burned-out vehicles reminded at least one observer of the unrest in 2015.
Yet, by the end of a day that saw another fatal shooting in a city that has topped 300 already this year, reaction settled into resignation.
“I mean, it’s Baltimore,” said Julia Spiese, a server at Indochine Vietnamese Restaurant on North Charles Street.
Hours earlier, a car had burned so hot outside the restaurant that melted rubber and blackened rubble still remained along the curb.
The fire department said at least five cars were set on fire and two more caught fire within a 10-block radius, spokeswoman Blair Skinner said. The vehicles were set aflame between 3 and 4 a.m.
Police believe they were set at random, interim police Commissioner Gary Tuggle said, adding that the department is working with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to investigate the arson.
Police released photos of a person of interest, 25-year-old Lakia Letterlough, taken in part by a staff member at the Owl Bar and through surveillance cameras at the Belvedere.
Late Friday, Baltimore police arrested Letterlough on North Charles Street without incident.
Online court records show Letterlough has been arrested three times since November in Baltimore and Anne Arundel County. She was charged with second-degree assault, theft and attempted theft on Dec. 10 in Baltimore and released on her own recognizance. That charge is pending.
On Nov. 20, Anne Arundel County police charged her with being a "rogue and vagabond" and committing theft of less than $100, a charge that is also pending. Before that, on Nov. 16, she was charged in the city with motor vehicle theft, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, and theft; that case was dropped Dec. 17.
Jackie Snyder, general manager of the Owl Bar inside the Belvedere, said a woman came into the building at 12:45 a.m. Staff found her in the bathroom with a bag of two canisters of gasoline, said Snyder, adding the room smelled heavily of gasoline. The staff confiscated the bag and escorted her out of the building at 1:04 a.m., she said.
After hearing about the fires later that morning, staff at the apartment building and bar contacted police, who, Snyder said, came and collected the canisters, took their surveillance footage and a photo taken by an Owl Bar bartender, which was one of the photos police released.
Snyder was not worried the fires would have an impact on business. Many business owners in the neighborhood look out for one another, she said.
She said the fires Friday were scary but nothing the neighborhood had not seen during the riots across Baltimore in 2015, following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody.
In 2015, Snyder said, staff at the Owl Bar and Belvedere had sequestered guests in a lockdown on the 13th floor. Snyder felt relieved Friday knowing the cars weren’t the result of a riot within the city, but, rather, suspected by police to have been burned at random.
George Mac said he was walking down Eager Street around 3 a.m. when he heard the booms.
“I knew that was a very odd sound because I hang in this area and you don’t hear those sounds at like 3 a.m.,” he said. “Who would want to do something like that three days, four days before Christmas?”
Neighbors clustered around the burned-out cars Friday morning, marveling at melted tires and taking photos of the damage. Some took to social media to share photos of the destruction, which centered around Charles and Eager streets.
Ryan Sturm snapped a photo on his phone as he walked his dog past the ashen shell of a car around 9 a.m. The damage reminded him of the riots across Baltimore in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray.
“I thought we were through this,” he said.
Towson resident John Walker sat on a bench on North Charles Street Friday afternoon, waiting for a bus. The retiree traveled into the city Friday to enjoy Mount Vernon’s sights.
Walker had heard the report of the car fires, but said he didn’t worry about too many things these days.
“If you live in the city, I suppose you’re a bit desensitized,” he said.
Baltimore recently reached 300 homicides for the fourth straight year. However, city officials pointed out this week that homicides are down 10 percent from last year. Other crime categories, including nonfatal shootings, robberies and burglaries are down as well.
As Spiese finished eating her lunch Friday at Indochine, she mused that the fires were indeed out of the ordinary compared to other crimes in the city. However, on second thought, they were “not outside the realm of possibility in Baltimore,” she said.
“There’s so many little instances of things happening,” she said. “It’s hard to get worked up.”
Baltimore Councilman Eric Costello, who represents the Mount Vernon area, said in a social media post Friday that he spoke with Mayor Catherine Pugh and law enforcement about the incidents. He asked any neighbors with private camera footage to contact city police at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It’s extremely disturbing,” Costello said in an interview. “People are upset and frustrated and scared. Someone lighting cars on fire is a very serious thing. Thank God no one was hurt.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Meehan contributed to this article.