Va. Arsonist Stays a Step Ahead of Authorities

March 18, 2013
Investigators in Accomack County say they are pursuing strong leads to solve dozens of arson fires that have plagued the area in recent months, but the arsonist is proving elusive.

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.

Serial arsonists come from every demographic, Nordskog wrote in an email exchange with The Virginian-Pilot. The detective has been involved in 27 serial-arson investigations and said some recent cases have involved Hispanics, a German national, two women -- one white, one black -- and a juvenile.

The first few fires are the most critical for investigators, Nordskog wrote. Often arsonists will have a connection to their first targets, even if investigators can't pinpoint it until later.

"The difficult part of this is that serial arsonists often light fires on and off for years throughout their life," Nordskog wrote. "It may be difficult to figure out the first fire in a series.??

Serial arsonists might also take breaks, he said, spacing fires over months, years or even decades. In the end, Nordskog wrote, most serial arsonists make a mistake and get caught. He said officials made arrests in all but three of the cases he's worked on.

As part of any arson investigation, officials comb through burned wreckage looking for evidence the arsonist left behind, said Gary Lassiter, vice president of the Tidewater Regional Arson Panel, a group of public and private fire investigators.

They look for signs of accelerants, such as flammable liquids, or an "ignition scenario" of how the fire was lit -- details that shed light on the arsonist's "sophistication level," Nordskog wrote. They also try to find out if anyone would profit from the blaze, Lassiter said.

The regional group has provided support to local investigators in Accomack County, Lassiter said. So far, the arsonist has remained a step ahead of officials. Still, investigators seem confident they'll find the person, or persons, responsible.

"I just feel like he's going to slip up," Lassiter said.

Tres Atkinson was getting ready for bed Tuesday night when his pager went off. The deputy chief for Onley Volunteer Fire-Rescue knew he was in for another long night.

Onley was one of the first stations called to the Whispering Pines blaze. When crews were still needed around 1:30 a.m., volunteers stopped to take stock of their resources.

Firefighters who had to work the next morning were sent home. Atkinson, who is between full-time jobs, stayed behind with some others. He didn't get back to his house in Wachapreague until 3:30 a.m., he said.

"I knew joining the fire department that you'd have a certain number of calls," he said, "a certain number of nights when you don't get much sleep."

Still, he said, the sometimes-nightly blazes are taking a toll on the county's volunteer firefighters. The fires have been spread among several communities, and a handful of stations are paged for each one, Atkinson said.

The Onley station, which has 25 to 30 volunteers, has gone on more than 15 arson-related calls since November, he said. Before the arsons started, the station would respond to about a dozen working fires in an entire year.

Locals worry that at some point the arsons will result in an injury, either intentional or accidental. Firefighters aren't entering burning vacant buildings such as Whispering Pines to conduct risky search-and-rescue operations, Atkinson said.

Still, any blaze can be dangerous.

There are other problems to worry about, too, such as having enough volunteers to respond to other emergencies. Officials Tuesday night also worried about potential traffic accidents as drivers stopped to snap photos of the burning motel.

Atkinson, one of several volunteer firefighters in his family, said he hopes whoever is behind the arsons gets caught. Others in the close-knit shore communities said they'd be happy if the fires just stopped and the arsonist quietly disappeared.

For a while, there was hope Whispering Pines would be the arsonist's grand finale.

But by 11:19 p.m. Wednesday, another Accomack County building was burning.

Sarah Hutchins, 757-222-5131, [email protected]

Copyright 2013 - The Virginian-Pilot

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