Official: Race and Revenge May Have Been Motives in Maryland Arsons

GREENBELT, Md. (AP) -- The fires at an upscale housing development in suburban Washington were set by unnamed ``acquaintances'' as well as the four men charged so far with arson and involved at least two vehicles, according to court documents filed Monday.

Michael M. Everhart, 20, of Waldorf, made an initial appearance Monday afternoon before a federal magistrate in Greenbelt. Jeremy D. Parady, 20, of Accokeek, and Patrick S. Walsh, 20, of Fort Washington, were to appear later Monday before the magistrate.

A fourth suspect, Aaron L. Speed, 21, was arrested last week. He has a federal detention hearing scheduled for Tuesday. Speed worked as a security guard at the site, while Parady was a firefighter with a volunteer fire company in nearby Accokeek.

The Dec. 6 fires at the Hunters Brooke development, where houses costing more than $400,000 were under construction, has been described as the largest residential arson in Maryland history. At least 10 houses were destroyed and another 16 damaged. No one was hurt.

Affidavits filed for charges against Parady, Walsh and Everhart give no indication of possible motives for the fires.

Magistrate Charles B. Day ordered Everhart held until a detention hearing Thursday. Everhart's attorney, William Brennan, and his relatives declined to comment outside the courthouse.

The affidavits allege Everhart, Parady and Walsh denied any involvement in interviews with federal and local investigators, then changed their stories after they were confronted with evidence.

Parady told investigators his job was to be ``the wheels'' of the operation, according to the affidavit.

When investigators asked Walsh what would happen if dogs trained to find the scent of fire-starting liquids had a ``hit'' on two of his cars, he allegedly replied, ``Then I guess you got me.'' The dogs found evidence of accelerants in both the cars, findings Walsh was unable to explain, the documents claim.

Everhart said he knew about the plot to set the fires beforehand and was at the scene, but claimed he left before any houses were torched.

All three men told investigators that additional ``acquaintances'' were involved. Asked Monday if other arrests were pending, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office would say only, ``The investigation continues.''

The four men and ``several others'' met in the parking lot of a Wendy's restaurant in Waldorf and traveled to the development in a dark blue Chevrolet Lumina and a second vehicle. The Lumina belonged to Walsh; it was not clear whether the other car was Walsh's second car or was another vehicle belonging to someone else. The group carried matches, road flares and butane torches, as well as four full gas cans, cans of kerosene and a drum containing an ``unknown bitter-smelling liquid,'' the documents said.

Members of the group would kick in a door, pour a pool of accelerant inside and ignite a trail from the pool to the door, the documents said. Laboratory tests detected traces of toluene and methyl isobutyl ketone - described by investigators as ignitable liquids not readily available to the public - on debris from the scene.

If convicted of arson, the men face a minimum prison sentence of five years each. The maximum penalty is 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Two possible motives, race and revenge, are among the theories that emerged as authorities questioned the men. A federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sunday that two of the suspects made racial statements. The suspects are white, while many of the families moving into the houses are black.

The official also said Parady was rejected for a job with Lennar Corp., the company building the houses. Speed allegedly told investigators he was angry with his employer, Security Services of America, because the company didn't show enough sympathy after one of his infant sons died this year. Lennar had hired Security Services of America to guard the Hunters Brooke site.

However, Michael Campbell, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said several other factors aside from race and revenge were under consideration. The men were charged with arson and not federal hate crimes, laws that are often used in cases of racial violence.

Police said there was no evidence to support an early theory that the fires were set by environmental extremists; some environmental groups had complained the houses threatened a nearby bog.

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