Private Guard at Home Site Charged With Arson
By GARY GATELY
Published: December 17, 2004
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/17/national/17arson.html?th (must register to view original article)
BALTIMORE, Dec. 16 - A 21-year-old security guard who worked at a new subdivision in southern Maryland was arrested Thursday and charged with setting fires to houses there in the worst case of residential arson in the state's history, federal authorities said.
The guard, Aaron L. Speed of Waldorf, Md., was arrested at his home not far from the Hunters Brooke subdivision in Indian Head, where blazes set early on Dec. 6 caused some $10 million in damage, destroying 10 houses in various stages of construction and damaging 16 others.
Mr. Speed had been an employee of Security Services of America, a company based in Morehead City, N.C., that had been hired to guard the development, a law enforcement official said. A woman who answered the phone at the company's headquarters declined to comment Thursday night.
The arrest of Mr. Speed came after an investigation involving scores of local, state and federal investigators who had searched a crime scene that covered more than 10 acres.
Vickie S. LeDuc, a spokeswoman for the office of Thomas M. DiBiagio, the United States attorney for the District of Maryland, said Thursday night that investigators believed Mr. Speed was involved in all the fires, but Ms. LeDuc would not comment on a possible motive or whether others were suspected in the fires.
The 119-acre development, where more than 300 houses are planned, is one of 740 developments that subsidiaries of the Lennar Corporation, a $7 billion company based in Miami, have created. It is also one that provoked concerted opposition from local groups and the national Sierra Club, which wrote in a 2000 report, "The project will destroy a forest adjacent to state-preserved wildlands and severely degrade one of Maryland's largest magnolia bogs."
More than 100 investigators arrived in southern Maryland to search for clues in what they called one of the most widespread single instances of arson in their experience.
Two of the volunteer firefighters who first responded to the blazes described houses bursting into flame in quick succession after their arrival.
Mr. Speed is to appear Friday before a United States magistrate judge in Federal District Court in Greenbelt, Md.
Local opponents had joined environmental groups in lawsuits intended to block construction of the Hunters Brooke development, about 25 miles south of Washington in an area once dominated by tobacco fields. The subdivision sits near an environmentally sensitive bog, which had led to speculation that environmental extremists may have set the fires.
That prospect stirred fear and alarm among those who had bought the new houses, priced at $400,000 to $500,000.
The arrest of Mr. Speed helped allay concerns that ecoterrorists had set the fires, said Eugene T. Lauer, the Charles County administrator.
"No question about it, it's a relief they caught someone," Mr. Lauer said. "I think it'll bring some closure, hopefully, to people who were going to live in that neighborhood and to the county. It's definitely a relief if it's not related to ecoterrorism."
Lisa Wright, whose niece Tamara Speed is married to Mr. Speed, said Thursday night that his arrest stunned family members.
Ms. Wright said Mr. Speed had cooperated with the F.B.I. during the investigation and had reported seeing a blue van leaving the subdivision the morning of the fires. Investigators, she said, had searched the Waldorf home where Mr. Speed and his wife and their young son, Aaron Jr., lived with Mr. Speed's parents.
"He's a good provider for his family; he works hard," Ms. Wright said. "He was trying to help these people find out what was going on, who did this."
She said he also believed that investigators had begun to "harass" him and used him as a "scapegoat to make an early arrest."
Ms. Wright, who lives in Indian Head near the subdivision, said that in April one of Mr. Speed's twin sons had died at 10 weeks old. His wife, Ms. Wright said, is pregnant.