March 17--ACCOMACK COUNTY -- Firefighters appeared as black silhouettes against bright orange flames and billowing smoke. The vacant Whispering Pines Motel, a local landmark, was burning down before their eyes, and there was little they could do.
State troopers leaned on patrol cars watching the spectacle Tuesday night. A reddish haze hung over a nearby patch of trees. Drivers pulled off U.S. 13, switching on flashing hazard lights and snapping pictures of what officials would confirm was the county's 66th arson since November.
From across the street, county Sheriff Todd Godwin chatted with reporters as he watched the blaze, the largest to date. About 140 officials, including deputy sheriffs, had recently finished a weekend of informational checkpoints, passing out about 6,500 fliers and netting 75 tips about the arsons.
Then, on Monday, a house in Oak Hill burned to the ground. Smoke still drifted from the charred rubble the next day. Around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, someone called 911 about Whispering Pines.
Many in the community had wondered when the arsonist would send the historic motel up in flames. Whispering Pines, once a popular lodging site and dining room, had turned into an eyesore as the property changed hands. It sat empty just off the highway in Tasley -- an obvious target for a serial arsonist.
Tuesday night, volunteers from several fire stations flooded the scene, hoping to keep the flames from spreading to a nearby bank of rooms that housed a caretaker. Tankers unloaded water into folding reservoirs, and firefighters shot heavy streams onto a two-story building. Still, flames quickly ate through the roof, sending burning gutters crashing to the ground.
Around the corner, an electronic sign flashed messages to passers-by: a phone number and a potential $25,000 reward for "ARSON INFO LEADS."
Officials believe most of the arsons are the work of "a collaboration of individuals" who set them an hour or two before smoke or flames are spotted, according to news releases from State Police, who are leading the investigation. Nearly 70 percent of the fires have been discovered between 6 p.m. and midnight.
"Some of the targeted structures have been in very remote, random locations throughout this rural county," Capt. Timothy A. Reibel, commander of the State Police's Bureau of Criminal Investigation's Chesapeake Field Office, said in a news release. "This not only makes the fires more difficult to detect, but also enables the criminal to come and go with minimal detection."
Corinne Geller, a State Police spokeswoman, said investigators are pursuing "very strong leads" in the cases but she remained tight-lipped about details surrounding the investigation.
A strong police presence has been obvious lately. About a dozen State Police cars dotted hotel parking lots near the border of Northampton and Accomack counties Tuesday afternoon. Satisfied with the weekend checkpoints, authorities had decided to stop the operation two days early and use the extra manpower for roving patrols, Geller said. Troopers and sheriff's deputies zipped down U.S. 13 or monitored activity from parking lots and driveways.
Police have not released information about suspect profiles or motives, leading locals to speculate about who might be behind the crimes. Could it be someone ex-military, possibly trained in special operations? An inside job by someone in law enforcement or the volunteer fire stations? Maybe the arsonist thinks he's doing the county a favor by burning down blighted buildings?
Experts say serial arsonists often fall into several categories, including those who are excited by fires, those who pose as heroes and those who want revenge on society or an institution.
The vast majority are dealing with mental health issues, said Edward Nordskog, a detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department arson and bomb squad who wrote a book on notorious serial arsonists.