High-Profile Arson Cases Point to Need For Tougher Laws

May 1, 2005

A federal grand jury has indicted five young men in connection with one of the nation’s largest residential arson cases, the Dec. 6, 2004, fires in the Hunters Brooke subdivision of Charles County, MD, about 25 miles south of Washington, DC.

Maryland State Fire Marshal William E. Barnard reported at the time that it was the largest residential arson case in Maryland history. The fires damaged or destroyed 26 homes under construction, causing an estimated $10 million in damage. Although no one was hurt in the fires, the subdivision was littered with blackened burned buildings.

The indictment alleges that the men conspired with one another, and with others, over a four-month period. They are accused of maliciously damaging, by means of fire, the residential dwellings under construction. They also are charged with conspiracy to commit arson, which is a separate crime. The penalty for arson and conspiracy to commit arson is a mandatory minimum of five years, and maximum of 20 years, in prison followed by up to three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine. In announcing the indictments on Jan. 3, 2005, U.S. Attorney Allan F. Loucks said that local, state and federal investigations were ongoing, and that further charges and more arrests were possible. A sixth man was arrested with the others in connection with the fires, but not indicted with them. (An indictment is not a finding of guilt, but rather an accusation that a defendant has committed a criminal act. Anyone charged by an indictment is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.)

According to a criminal affidavit filed by prosecutors, a group – including at least some of the suspects – met in a fast-food restaurant parking lot near the development, and then rode to the scene of the arsons in two vehicles. It is alleged that they carried with them matches, road flares, butane torches and several containers of flammable liquids. Allegedly, they kicked in a door at each house, then poured a pool of accelerant inside and a trail back to the door, then ignited the accelerant.

The crime prompted a coordinated investigation involving county, state and federal agencies. This included a National Response Team from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), with its variety of technical experts. The FBI, Maryland State Fire Marshal and Charles County Fire Marshal also participated.

Fires such as this attract a lot of nationwide public attention, but most arson cases are far more mundane. There were an estimated 37,500 arson-related fires in 2003, according to the U. S. Fire Administration (USFA), causing more than 300 deaths and almost $700 million in property damage.

Those charged in the Maryland case were ages 20 to 22, but a large proportion of intentional fires are set by juveniles. Fires set by younger juveniles tend to involve experimentation, mischief and vandalism, while fires set by older juveniles are more likely to have destructive purposes. Although there has been much public speculation, the motives behind the Hunters Brooke fires have not yet been publicly identified.

Arson is one of the oldest crimes, tracing its roots to the earliest common law. In its earliest form, arson was limited to the burning of an occupied house, since its purpose was to protect citizens from the risk of death or injury. Under that early definition, the Hunters Brooke fires would not have been considered arson, since the houses were not occupied. Indeed, even now, Maryland law distinguishes between fires set in a dwelling or occupied structure and in other structures or personal property. Today, however, arson covers all types of buildings, as well as vehicles, other property and, indeed, land itself (witness charges brought against those who have intentionally set brushfires).

Barnard noted that arson cases often are tough to prosecute. Unless someone is killed or injured, or the fire is a high-visibility one, such as this, arson generally is not a high-priority crime. By their very nature, arson cases have difficult evidence issues since evidence typically is consumed by the fire. Firefighters can be of great assistance to investigators, Barnard said, simply by being observant, especially when approaching the scene of any working fire. Those first impressions often can provide important clues to a fire’s cause.

As we mark National Arson Awareness Week, May 1-7, the fire service also needs to speak out about the importance of providing adequate resources to address the run-of-the-mill arson fires that don’t receive the kind of national attention that the Hunters Brooke fires received. This tragedy provides the opportunity for public education, as well as for informing government leaders of the need for adequate laws and resources to address the fires that don’t get national attention.

Steve Blackistone, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an attorney and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.

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