Retired Maryland police chief used arson for vendettas, prosecutors say; a stirring dog may have saved one family

Investigators across Maryland started noticing similarities in a decade’s worth of intentional car and home fires about two years ago. The arsonist wore similar clothing, struck at the same time of day, and carried a gallon container of gasoline.

As they looked closer, the connections went beyond how the fires were started to whom they targeted. All the victims — a chiropractor, a woman involved in school redistricting efforts and people in police and municipal circles — had links to retired Laurel police chief David Crawford. Even the chief who replaced him and his own stepson had been struck, prosecutors said.


When they searched Crawford’s Ellicott City home earlier this year, authorities found a trove of evidence, including a coded “target list” and internet search histories related to the victims and their addresses. Crawford also had burn scars on his leg, from one fire that went awry, according to court records.

Crawford, 69, who spent 30 years with the Prince George’s County and Baltimore police departments before serving as chief of two suburban Maryland police forces, was taken into custody Wednesday and charged with intentionally setting 12 fires between 2011 and 2020.


No one was injured in any of them, but the victims and their families were inside their homes in six of them, and Crawford also faces multiple counts of attempted murder.

The fires took place in Howard, Prince George’s, Frederick and Montgomery counties, and officials say additional fires in Anne Arundel and Charles counties are under investigation.

One of the fires was set in 2019 at the home of Richard McLaughlin, who was Crawford’s deputy and who succeeded him as police chief. It caused $100,000 in damage.

“That’s a long time to hold a grudge,” McLaughlin told The Baltimore Sun. “The big question I have is, why?”

Officials from across the region held a news conference Thursday at which they called Crawford a dangerous man who likely would have struck again.

“We have stopped potential future tragedies,” Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said.

In addition to the coded target list and internet search history, investigators used his Apple health app to show he was up and moving when fires were set during the middle of the night.

“The main thing that comes to my mind is the terror the victims would continue to feel if you were out and about,” Howard County District Judge Ricardo D. Zwaig said as he ordered Crawford held without bail.


Inside the courtroom Crawford’s wife sat three rows back with tissues in her hand. She declined to comment after the hearing.

“If you looked up in the dictionary the word ‘bully,’ that’s the kind of person he was. He fit the description of a bully, only because of the power of his title.”

—  Carl DeWalt, Laurel City Council member

Robert Bonsib, Crawford’s attorney, said that the broad series of allegations will take a substantial time to investigate.

“When you look at his history of service, 20 years rising to the level of major in a large metropolitan police department, serving as a chief of police, serving his community in that capacity, that’s a personality profile that’s inconsistent with what is in the statement of charges, so that’s something that’s got to be addressed,” Bonsib said after the hearing.

Scott Hammond, assistant state’s attorney, argued that the retaliatory nature of Crawford’s crimes made his potential release a danger to the community.

“There is not one person who is safe from retaliation,” Hammond said during the hearing.

Crawford began his law enforcement career with the Baltimore Police Department in 1972 and resigned in 1980, the department confirmed. He then spent 20 years with the Prince George’s County Police Department, rising to the rank of major. He became chief of District Heights before taking on the Laurel position in 2006.


“One of the things I’m trying to build on is to instill integrity, trust and openness with the community,” Crawford said in a 2007 podcast interview.

Former Laurel City Council President Frederick Smalls recalled working well with Crawford and found him to be “very professional.” He called Crawford’s arrest a “total shock.”

Carl DeWalt, a Laurel City Council member, had a different view. He worked for Crawford in the Laurel Police Department for more than four years, rising to lieutenant and working on Crawford’s command staff.

“If you looked up in the dictionary the word ‘bully,’ that’s the kind of person he was,” DeWalt said. “He fit the description of a bully, only because of the power of his title.”

During command staff meetings, DeWalt said, Crawford frequently became irate with colleagues, and retaliated against those who upset him, such as taking away DeWalt’s vehicle when he missed a weekend meeting.

Crawford served as Laurel’s chief until resigning for “personal reasons” in 2010. Investigators wrote in court records that he was asked to resign.


Laurel Mayor Craig Moe confirmed that he had told Crawford he wanted to “make some changes within the police department, and he understood and submitted his resignation.”

Crawford’s LinkedIn page shows him in scuba diving gear and says: “Happily retired, but also happy to help!”

The fire at McLaughlin’s home occurred in March 2019, one month after he retired as Laurel’s police chief. He was awakened by his German shepherd one morning at 3:30 a.m. and smelled smoke.

Downstairs, he saw the orange glow of flames burning outside his basement window. He ran out, thinking his neighbor’s house was on fire. Instead, the fire was burning a Jeep and SUV parked in his driveway.

The flames crawled up the side of his home. The basement window broke; the fire rushed in. He woke his wife and two children and hurried them outside. As the fire crews worked, he told himself something faulty in the cars caught fire.

His wife suggested they check the surveillance camera on the garage.


In the dark footage, he saw the arsonist.

“I was speechless,” he said. “It knocked me to my knees, knocked the wind out of me.”

The figure was dark, his face obscured, but McLaughlin recognized something in the distinctive way this man walked. He couldn’t quite place it.

His surveillance video would help crack the case. Only after investigators told McLaughlin they suspected Crawford did he remember the chief’s distinctive walk.

Investigators in the different jurisdictions say they began to notice links between the cases in 2019, they say in charging documents: The suspect was always dressed in long pants and a hooded sweatshirt, wearing gloves and dark boots or shoes. They said he also used one-gallon plastic containers to carry gasoline, and drove a silver sedan. The fires with one exception occurred between 3 and 4 a.m.

“Nobody was a complete stranger that didn’t know him,” Prince George’s County Detective Thomas Smith said.


In the earliest known fire, set in May 2011 at the home of Laurel’s city administrator, a neighbor saw the suspect set a car on fire, and catch fire himself in the process, records show. A Nike Monarch shoe was left behind, and a pair of burned jeans were discarded in a storm drain nearby. Inside the shoe was dog hair from a German shepherd.

Investigators said they found Facebook pictures showing Crawford wearing Nike Monarchs; he once owned a German shepherd; and they say he used his email address to ask on a medical forum about being burned, two weeks after the fire. In January of this year, they took pictures of old burn scars on his leg.

Crawford is believed to have set three fires at the Clarksburg home of his stepson between 2016 and 2020, according to charging documents.

In another case, investigators located a letter sent by Crawford’s wife, Mary, to a Howard County judge in which Mary Crawford, a former Prince George’s County prosecutor, took offense to the judge’s use of the term “white privilege” during a court program for children. Mary Crawford was asked not to come back to the program by its director, who recalled her “not agreeing with the ‘white privilege’ concept and expressed her displeasure.”

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The director’s vehicle was set on fire in Ellicott City in 2017, and “white privilege” and the director’s address were found on Crawford’s alleged target list, according to the documents.

David Crawford also allegedly set fire to his chiropractor’s Elkridge home in June 2017 while the man and his family, including two children, were inside sleeping.


A fire in September 2018 caused $240,000 in damages at the under-construction Ellicott City home of a woman with whom Crawford had a disagreement about school redistricting, the records allege. Crawford had been active in redistricting and other local issues in Howard County, including saying at a 2017 forum that he was concerned about immigrants bringing crime.

At Thursday’s bail review hearing, Crawford’s attorney Bonsib argued that he was not a flight risk, noting that he had known since January that he could be charged. He said his client also had medical issues, including a triple-bypass surgery a few years ago.

Prosecutors countered that they believe Crawford had continued his crimes post-surgery.

McLaughlin said that though he lost touch with Crawford after 2010, he saw nothing to indicate violence.

“I have racked my brain. I have tried to come up with some incident, but it just doesn’t make sense,” McLauglin said. “There’s nothing I can recall that would indicate this.”