An arson that destroyed part of a Greenbelt, Maryland-area development with many black homeowners was “an effort to wipe out a community” and authorities are “very carefully investigating” whether the fires were a racial hate crime, according to a federal prosecutor in the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Donna Sanger said the suspects, not all of whom are in custody, intended to “inflict as much damage as possible.” Six men have been arrested, and authorities have said they have interviewed or plan to question about 10 more people who may be connected to the fires.
The Dec. 6 fires destroyed 10 houses and damaged 16 others at the upscale Hunters Brooke development in the suburbs of Washington, much of which was still under construction. Investigators called it the largest residential arson in Maryland history.
Sanger made her comments during a detention hearing for the first suspect arrested, Aaron L. Speed, 21, of Waldorf. A magistrate granted Sanger’s request to keep Speed in custody until his trial.
Speed’s attorney, public defender John C. Chamble, called the government’s case “extremely thin,” saying there was no scientific or forensic evidence against his client.
Speed and the five other suspects in custody–all young, white men–are charged with arson. None is charged with a hate crime.
Investigators had said earlier that racism may have been a motive. A law enforcement source who spoke on condition of anonymity said two of the suspects made racial statements while talking to investigators.
Two other motives have been suggested in court documents–a desire to gain notoriety for a local gang and revenge.
Knew in advance of plot
Michael E. Gilbert, 21, one of two suspects arrested, acknowledged during interrogation that he knew about the arson plot in advance, according to an affidavit made public.
“Gilbert said that he was a member of ‘the family,’ also known as the ‘Unseen Cavaliers,’ a gang operating in Charles County, Md.,” the documents said.
“The leader of the ‘family’ is Patrick Walsh. Gilbert stated that approximately one month ago, Walsh approached Gilbert saying Walsh had a plan to make ‘the family bigger and more famous.’ Walsh’s plan had to do with setting ‘something’ on fire and that it would be big.”
Walsh’s attorney, William B. Purpura, denied the allegations in the affidavit.
“He’s not the head of any gang,” Purpura told The Associated Press. He said he believes the name, Unseen Cavaliers, refers to cars. Walsh, who lives in Waldorf, owns a purple Chevrolet Cavalier. Court papers said trained dogs detected the scent of fire-starting chemicals on two of Walsh’s cars, including the Cavalier.
Failed job applicant
The official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Parady, a volunteer with a local fire department, unsuccessfully sought to get a job with Lennar Corp., the company building the houses. Speed allegedly told investigators that he was angry with his employer, Security Services of America, because company officials didn’t treat him properly after one of his sons died this year.
Initially, there was speculation the fires were set by environmental extremists because some critics had complained the houses threatened a nearby bog. But no evidence has been found to support that theory, police said.
Several of the suspects were interested in street racing and may have been members of an informal racing club, according to a law enforcement source who spoke on condition of anonymity. “A lot of them know each other from that club. That’s one thing they had in common,” the source said.
Another affidavit said Everhart, Parady, Walsh and Speed, as well as unnamed “acquaintances,” met at a Wendy’s restaurant parking lot in Waldorf before they allegedly went to set the fires.
Gilbert’s girlfriend said he couldn’t have been at the fires, which started during the early morning of Dec. 6. April Wilkinson, 19, of Waldorf, said that after they ate at a restaurant together Dec. 5, they went back to her home and played cards until 7 a.m. the next morning, when Gilbert went to sleep.
Stephanie Cave, a friend of Gilbert’s, said she was also at the restaurant and played cards with Gilbert the night of the fires.
She said she knows several of the suspects, and that they would meet on a regular basis at a Denny’s restaurant to talk. Cave described the group as a “family.”
At one gathering, the members had dinner and talked. The topics included cars but not crime, she said.
She said Walsh was a laid-back person who tried to stop fights. “Pat, he didn’t like drama,” she said. “He usually tried to stop it from happening.”
If convicted of arson, the men face a minimum prison sentence of five years each.
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