Interagency work key to catching Md. apartment arsonist

By Karen L. Bune
The Washington Times

PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY, Md. — The spring and summer of 2007 were terrifying times for the residents of Springhill Lake, an apartment complex in Greenbelt with nearly 3,000 units. An arsonist began setting a string of fires in late March of that year, and by the end of the month the multiple-alarm blazes had displaced about 250 families. Before justice could run its full course, it took the combined efforts of local, state and federal authorities to identify the arsonist, whose weapon of choice was a cigarette lighter. In the end, authorities not only had their man, but were also rewarded with praise and several commendations, including a recent one from the Police Chiefs Association of Prince George's County.

The Greenbelt residents' nightmare began with a three-alarm blaze that erupted at the garden-style apartments on March 25, 2007. "It was a significant fire," said Paul Gomez, the county's acting battalion chief.

The blaze displaced about 50 families and drew a substantial response. For example, the Prince George's County Fire Department General Orders calls for four engine companies, two truck companies, a third special service (the closest rescue squad or truck) and a battalion officer to a one-alarm blaze, according to the Prince George's County Fire Department General Orders. Additional units may be added in areas without hydrants or other special conditions. A second alarm dispatches the same set of equipment and personnel, in addition to specialty apparatus. In addition, a second alarm could alert as many as 14 fire stations. One can imagine residents' concerns to the personnel and equipment response to the three-alarm arson fire.

Just two days later, fire department personnel were still on the scene when another blaze broke out. Between that first arson and Aug. 2, the arsonist had subjected Springhill Lake residents and fire personnel to at least nine dangerous situations. No one was injured in any of the fires.

Firefighters partner with police
Top authorities formed the Serial Arson Task Force, a coalition of local, state, and federal agencies, including the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), Maryland State Fire Marshal's Office, Greenbelt City Police Department, Hyattsville City Police Department, and communications personnel who partnered with the Prince George's County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. The group worked out of the Greenbelt City Police Department for approximately six months.

They worked around the clock and made certain their schedules were flexible to cover their needs.

They employed public-safety fundamentals.

"We worked on the process of elimination," Battalion Chief Gomez said.

Electrical causes, lightning and all other natural sources were ruled out until a determination was made that the fires were set intentionally.

Each group of professionals brought its expertise to the table. The fire personnel had knowledge of fire behavior, arson laws and how to conduct fire investigations. The police had knowledge of the area itself as well as known criminals in the vicinity, and officers were acquainted with the apartment management personnel. The ATF provided access to its national laboratory in Beltsville and also contributed federal resources and technology that enabled efficient research to aid the investigation. The fire marshal provided extra personnel and professionals skilled in undercover operations.

"We put quite a bit of work into this," Battalion Chief Gomez said.

They had to; a serial arsonist was on the loose and fortunate that no one had been hurt.

Authorities conducted extensive door-to-door interviews in 30 buildings with every resident. Several hundred people were interviewed, including 40 to 50 people who were contractors and employees of Springhill Lake.

"Everyone was extremely worried about the problem. They were eager to talk to us and wanted the problem solved," said Battalion Chief Gomez.

Investigators sifted through a lot of information. "We certainly had many persons of interest but eventually narrowed it down to one suspect," Battalion Chief Gomez said.

Profile of an arsonist
The profile of an arsonist offers multiple clues and stereotypes: The arsonist is usually male; a loner; minimally educated; an underachiever; has poor interpersonal relationships and is socially inadequate; is unemployed or has erratic employment history and, if employed, has a job involving little or no skill; a police record minor offenses; walks to the fire scenes; lives near the fire scenes. Motives run the spectrum from fun to curiosity to boredom.

After mounting substantial evidence and determining probable cause, police arrested Jeremiah Christopher Jones, who was 25 at the time.

Jones lived in the complex and had set the fires in a circle around his home.

Jones set fire to clothing and other materials in concealed spaces because he knew the confined spaces were close to other wiring, which would continue to burn after he had set the fire. Police would later learn that Jones also had set four motor vehicles ablaze, including a motorcycle. He also torched some bushes and a trash container.

All told, Jones confessed to 22 arson fires.

On April 2 this year, Jones was sentenced in federal court to 97 months in prison and three years of supervised probation for setting nine blazes - fires that resulted in $2 million in damages at Springhill Lake.

On May 28, Prince George's County Fire Chief Eugene A. Jones presented to Unit Citation to the arson task force.

"You worked diligently alongside your fellow task force members in an effort to apprehend the person responsible for using fire as a weapon to terrorize a community, endanger the lives of the residents and firefighters and cause millions of dollars in property damage. Your actions, which assisted greatly in the apprehension and successful prosecution of the serial arsonist, are commendable and worthy of recognition," said Chief Jones.

A few days later, on June 2, the Police Chiefs Association of Prince George's County's named Detective Michael Lanier, a 23-year veteran of the Greenbelt police force, Investigator of the Year for getting Jones to confess.

Detective Lanier's co-workers and other public-safety personnel had high praise for the veteran. They said his straightforward and easy-going manner helped bring to an end a terrifying time in Greenbelt.

The Justice Department is seeking $2.4 million in restitution from Jones.

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