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Heat of the Night

When 5-year-old Sha Niesha Minor hears a firetruck, sometimes she asks her father an old question: "Daddy, is our house on fire again?"

Last June, an investigator with the Prince George’s County Fire/Emergency Medical Services Department noticed some similarities between about a half-dozen recent arsons in the area. Someone was setting fire to residential homes, between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., using an accelerant. In some cases, the arsonist set the fire near a doorway where a victim might try to escape.

As they became more certain of the links, P.G. investigators started to wonder if the problem might extend beyond the county. They shared their findings with D.C. fire officials, and by the end of June, the two departments jointly notified the press that a serial arsonist had set at least four residential fires in the metro area. An additional 15 fires, they said, appeared alike in nature. Investigators would soon add other recent arsons to the list, bringing the total number of similar fires to more than two dozen, some stretching as far back as March. One of the suspicious fires killed 86-year-old Lou Edna Jones in her Evarts Street NE home. More fires were set during the fall and winter, pushing the list to its current dimensions—35 arsons, 14 of them conclusively linked.

The fires and the task force that studied them made for one of last year’s premier local news sagas. Officials said they were investigating 300 leads. They eventually released an artist’s rendering of a suspect based on a purported sighting and put out a behavioral sketch. On Wednesday, the task force released an enhanced sketch of the arsonist and updated the toll of suspicious fires. The fresh drawing may give new life to a faltering investigation and has certainly attracted media attention. The news, too, should jolt victims of last year’s arsons, a group not entirely convinced that the offender won’t pay them a second visit.

March 5, 5:40 a.m.

Anita Kyler was born in the District before the first world war. She grew up in Southeast and never left the city. For the last half-century, she lived in a row house on D Street SE, even as her health started to deteriorate in recent years. About half of her 10 living children—who now range in age between their mid-50s and early 70s—can say they grew up in that house.

Kyler has refused to return to her house ever since someone set it on fire last March. As her children have learned, there’s no convincing the 92-year-old matriarch that it won’t happen again.

The fire, which caused about $16,000 in damage, burned the basement door and awning and extended to the first floor. The family could afford the inconvenience but not their mother’s trauma: Someone had deliberately set fire to her house, and she was leaving permanently. For months, she’s been adrift between homes as she fights the arthritis that ravages her, she says, "from head to feet." She can’t walk without assistance, so her displacement has been a special burden on her and her family. Fortunately, every one of her surviving children still lives either in the District or Prince George’s County.

"I’m like an airplane," says Kyler. "I go from house to house like an airplane goes from city to city."

She stayed at two of her daughters’ houses before landing a Brookland apartment, which she had to vacate in January when her insurance carrier stopped covering her living expenses. At that point, she moved into an assisted-living home, paid for by the family, but she lasted only a week there. She found the ringleader of the elderly residents to be "too bossy," in the words of one of her daughters. Since then, she’s been at the Capitol Heights, Md., home of daughter Barbara Jefferson, which is within three blocks of two other arsons on the list compiled by investigators as "similar in nature."

The fire, which occurred three days after Kyler’s 92nd birthday, is the earliest on the arson list. Kyler had to be carried out of a second-floor bedroom by a pair of Washington Gas workers who’d been flagged down by Joyce Woods, the family friend staying with her at the time. Kyler normally would have been in her furnished basement, near the door where the fire was set, but Woods, whom Kyler considers an unofficially adopted daughter, had persuaded her to sleep upstairs that night. "She said, ‘Mom, let’s go upstairs,’" recalls Kyler, who has trouble remembering everything from the morning of the fire. "I said OK. Any other night I would have been sleeping down there."

Kyler was frightened and confused in the days after her fire. It was long before the public would learn of a serial arsonist. "She wondered who would do that to her," says Jefferson. "She’d say, ‘Why me? I never hurt nobody.’" Kyler isn’t comforted by the fact that the crime was probably random, or that the arsonist hasn’t struck the same house twice.

According to daughter Jean Kyler, her mother waffled at first on whether to move home. One day, she’d emphatically say she wouldn’t, but then, probably just to appease her children, she’d say she’d give it a shot and return when the house was fixed up. But the next time the subject came up, she’d say that she’d never go back and that it wasn’t up for debate. "We tried to tell her that it was one of those things," says Jean. "That it’s not just her but a lot of other folks. We’d assure her it won’t happen again, but she said no. She ain’t going back."

A mood change has accompanied Kyler’s resistance to reoccupying her home. "She’s a really funny person," says Jean. "But she hasn’t been joking lately. It’s been depressing to her, the whole thing." Repairs to the house are nearly finished. After making some general improvements, the family plans to put it on the market.

"I’m not going back there," says Anita Kyler. "Because he might try to do it again. I ain’t gonna give him a second chance."

March 25, 4:10 a.m.

"It just seems like yesterday, although it was March the 25th."

Some arson victims, like 74-year-old Muriel Russell, keep in their minds the date of their fire as if it were a sibling’s birthday. In Russell’s case, the date marked more than just her fire—it was the day her sleep patterns changed.

She suddenly had trouble falling back to sleep after getting up to use the bathroom. "It got so bad you didn’t want to be comfortable sleeping until daybreak," she says. "You walk around. You go back and forth. You look out the windows. It’s with you constantly."

Well before an arsonist arrived, Russell and her family were already coping with the nuisances that abound in the Douglass neighborhood of Southeast. During the summer before the fire, Muriel, who describes herself as "an active senior citizen," had her car stolen right out of the driveway. The car theft came not long after someone had thrown a rock through the window above their front door. In the warmer months, kids from the other side of Suitland Parkway pass through their yard to reach a neighborhood pool, breaking beer bottles in front of the house and urinating in the yard. Occasionally, the Russells will see people having sex in cars parked on their street. Such common occurrences led them to believe malicious kids had set the fire. "I try to be here when it gets dark," says Kenneth Russell Jr., Muriel’s 56-year-old son. "I keep an ear out. You hear gunshots; you see strange cars."

But routine neighborhood troubles paled in comparison with the disquiet following the fire. Muriel started sleeping on the sofa in the living room each night. There, she was closer to the front door, where her fire was set, and better able to hear the sounds of any trouble outside. At dawn, she would leave the sofa for her bed. "It’s terror. You never get over it. You can relax, but the next minute it’s on your mind." Stephanie Holly, Russell’s 27-year-old granddaughter, says she and the rest of the family often preferred sleeping in the living room rather than their bedrooms after the fire.

Kenneth Russell favors dozing on the love seat beside the couch. "Any little sound and I’m looking out the window," he says. "Or I’ll put on my bathrobe and go out the back door with a flashlight." He’ll watch television into the late hours—vintage basketball games or old boxing matches on ESPN, maybe some Court TV. "It’s like sleeping," he says. Muriel likens her son, a part-time electrician, to a "security guard."

Hurricane Isabel was by far the worst time. The storm arrived about a half-year after the fire, but the anxieties were still fresh. According to Muriel, downed power lines put their block in complete darkness for nine days. "That was a scary time. You look outside and there are no lights." To make matters worse, she missed the hum of the central air conditioning. The heat wasn’t bad, but everything outside was audible. "All the windows were open. You can hear any little sound."

The occasional visit from investigators hasn’t relieved the late-night jitters. "They haven’t told us anything," says Holly. "All I know is, I turn on the TV and see people’s homes were set on fire….You see it on the news or in the paper, if they feel like writing it up. It’s like it’s important but it’s not important. It’s important to us, because it happened to us."

In the nearly 11 months since their fire, Kenneth Russell recalls about four different visits from investigators, each as unrevealing as the last. "It’s just the same questions, over and over," he says. "Before they ask you, you know what you’re going to say." Most of the questions he hears pertain to the night of the fire: Did you see any strange people around the house that night? Any strange cars? Had you angered anyone recently? Other victims are asked lifestyle questions: Do you go to any clubs? What church do you go to? Do you know of anyone who would want to hurt you?

Muriel says she relives her fire with each new arson attack: "When I read about another one in the paper, my heart jumps out. I can see what’s happening to that family."

June 5, 3:35 a.m.

Willis Baum, 33, first tried blasting the burning door with the fire extinguisher. But like any diminutive home extinguisher, it was quickly spent. Next he grabbed the bin from the sink and doused the door with a load of dirty dishwater, again to no avail. In a futile panic, he grabbed a window screen and swatted at the flames with it, burning his wrist in the process. By then, his nephew had run a garden hose through the house. The fire would be merely smoldering when firefighters arrived.

Once the fire crew finished, according to Baum, a male and a female investigator took him and his 23-year-old nephew behind his mother’s Ames Place NE row house to interview them. "He said, ‘If y’all know something, you need to start talking,’" recalls Baum. The investigators asked them if they owed anyone money or if they’d had any street confrontations recently. Baum, who was only spending the weekend at the house, still bristles at how the investigators pressed him. "He wanted to know why we would allow someone to set a fire with my mom in there," Baum says. "Yeah. We let someone deliberately set the fucking house on fire." Baum says the investigators seized the gas can to his nephew’s minibike.

If Baum was befuddled by what had happened, so were the investigators. Before that morning, there had been six fires in the District and four in P.G. County that would later be investigated as possibly part of a serial pattern, though the public wouldn’t learn of an arsonist for weeks. By the end of the month, there would be a dozen more suspicious fires. As far as Baum could see, initial investigators treated his fire as the typical arson in a seedy neighborhood—a gangbanger’s feud over drug turf or money.

Soon the neighborhood was abuzz with the news: Willis and his nephew had done something to get his mother’s house set on fire. "Somebody was spreading rumors in a community meeting that someone was after me," says Baum. "We didn’t find out [about the arsonist] until different newspapers tried to get in touch with my mom."

A few weeks after the fire, Baum saw his mother’s address listed in an arson item on the evening news. The story had just broken, and the Ames Place house was among the fires being investigated as similar. It has not been conclusively linked to the serial arsonist.

Baum says his mother, who lived in the house for about 12 years, moved out a few months after the fire. On Jan. 6, employees of the District of Columbia Housing Authority, which owns the house, were boarding up the front door.

As for Baum, he says he’s still waiting for an apology from investigators: "They figured we’re young, black, and doing wrong. That goes on a lot here."

June 13, 4:55 a.m.

The Minors had been living in their new home for just six weeks when somebody set it on fire. They were new to Capitol Heights, Md., and they were new to homeownership. As the family of three stood in their square green yard in the early-morning hours, half-naked, watching the northwest side of their house burn, neither world seemed very promising.

Frank and Tracy Minor had just moved with their then-4-year-old daughter, Sha Niesha, from an apartment in Forestville, Md. Their first house payment, Frank says, had just been sent out in the mail. They learned the night of the fire that it was arson. Officials on the scene told him there’d been a rash of similar fires around the county in recent weeks, but nothing had yet been tied together and announced to the press. "We figured it was just a prank," Frank says.

A couple of weeks after the fire, an insurance investigator stopped by to take a soil sample at the spot beside their house where the fire originated. Frank could plainly smell the fumes of the accelerant as the technician dug up a hunk of earth: "He didn’t need to hold it too close," Frank says. That was the last he would see of any forensic tests. Since then, it’s just been the same rounds of monotonous questions from task-force investigators.

Frank and Tracy hear from the task force every month or two, they estimate. The interviews, each a series of the same questions, make them think investigators are grasping for straws. "It starts to make you feel like you’re the guilty party," says Frank. He doesn’t sense that any progress has been made toward finding the person who terrified his daughter so badly that she refused to sleep alone again until November, a half-year after the fire. "It’s like a dead case," he says. "The only time you hear about it is when he sets another one."

Sha Niesha now stays in her own bed and doesn’t require the attention from her parents that she needed after the fire. But occasionally the sound of a fire engine will have her asking an old question: "Daddy, is our house on fire again?"

June 17, 5 a.m.

"What the hell is really going on? Is somebody trying to kill us?"

Dave, a Capitol Heights, Md., father of two who is withholding his last name, can remember the fear in his wife’s voice. They had just escaped from a fire, along with their 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. Outside, Dave could smell the gasoline-like fumes of the accelerant that had been used to set his Abel Avenue home on fire.

Dave had managed to unload a fire extinguisher on the blaze as his neighbor, who’d alerted him to the fire by banging on his door, blasted it with a garden hose. In the end, the damage was relatively modest: a portion of his siding, about the size of a large painting, had melted away under the heat, and some of his off-white brick had turned black. The destruction itself was of little concern; he was worried that someone might be after his family.

Arson was new territory for Dave, but it was familiar to some of the P.G. County firefighters working that shift: They had just left a similar fire on Jefferson Heights Drive, about two miles away, when they got the call for Dave’s house. According to 911 reports, the fires were set about 25 minutes apart. The firefighters told Dave where the other house was.

After daybreak, he drove over there hoping to find answers. The house looked a lot like his: a relatively new two-story with light-colored siding. He met the clearly distraught family that lived inside. The two parties shared their experiences for a while. Dave recalls a comfort in not being alone, in the sense of randomness to it all. "They were the same as us," he remembers. "What the hell’s going on? I let them know it just happened to us. They said what a relief that no one was targeted."

The family of five in the Jefferson Heights Avenue home had been living there less than a year when it was burned. They declined to comment for this article, though the mother shouted from behind her tinted-glass door: "It was awful! It was awful!" Her fire has been conclusively linked to the serial arsonist; Dave’s has not.

June 20, 4:05 a.m.

A day of touring Pennsylvania Dutch country had wiped out Emily Brown and her two guests. They knew they’d all sleep hard. Brown’s sister, Annette Perry, and brother-in-law, Milton Perry, took the master bedroom in Brown’s Capitol Heights, Md., one-story home. Brown moved into the smaller guest room for the night. She slept right through the smoke alarm, but Annette woke to the buzzing sound and smelled smoke. The alarm didn’t go off for long—it hung over the front door, just inside the blaze, and either the heat or the flames quickly disabled it.

Annette shook Brown awake before she and her husband went out the side door. But for a reason she can’t explain, Brown felt drawn to the fire. As the side door stood wide open, she walked into her kitchen and stopped there, transfixed, watching the flames cross through her front door to the inside and lick at her ceiling. "It was a moment of shock," says Brown. "I was wondering, Is this electrical? Who would try to set me on fire?" She stayed there until she heard her sister screaming to her from outside.

Brown, like many other victims, insists that the Lord kept an eye out for her and considers herself "blessed" to still be alive. She lives alone, and the Perrys had nearly left for Raleigh, N.C., that night. If Annette hadn’t been there, Brown insists, she’d be dead. Her fire was just three days after Dave’s.

Ever since the fire, Brown has been waking up naturally between 4 and 4:30 a.m. every night. Her body clock won’t allow her to forget that an arsonist set her front porch on fire at about 4:05 a.m.: "That particular half-hour is imbedded in me until he’s caught." She’ll often get up in the dark to peer out the windows and doors. "I know I shouldn’t," she says, "but I do." Sometimes she thinks about the arsonist in those sleepless wee hours, wondering what kind of life he leads: "Is he a family man? Does he have kids? Is he mentally disturbed, or is he just mean? Not a day has passed I haven’t thought about him."

Her house, on Chapel Oaks Drive, had belonged to her mother until she passed away five years ago, when Brown moved in. It took Brown and her six siblings a few years to transfer the home into their names. "We were lax about it all," she says. Somewhere along the line, the home insurance expired, and Brown never got around to renewing it—a lapse she would pay for.

The parade of solicitous contractors started in the morning—"the ambulance chasers," as Brown calls them. "When they find out you don’t have insurance, they back off. But they’re sure to come when there’s a fire." The quotes she did get came in between $10,000 and $12,000, a range that she couldn’t afford. She decided to do the repairs herself.

Most of her brothers and sisters chipped in about a grand apiece to fix the house they’d all grown up in. Brown got her own contractors and a Home Depot card, which she would push to the max. She bought the wood door, the screen door, the knobs and locks, the Sheetrock for the ceiling, the wood, the siding, the shutters, the awning, and the paint. In the end, she did it all for about $6,000. Her front porch, which was completely destroyed, hasn’t been replaced.

Just a few weeks after the fire, as her house was amid repairs, Brown called the gas company to check a leak. After the Washington Gas workers took care of the problem, the manager of the crew approached Brown and delicately asked her what had happened to her home. She told him she was a victim of the serial arsonist.

"’I was, too,’" Brown recalls the man saying. "’You’re blessed to be staying in your house. I’ve been out of mine for a month.’"

They both expressed their wishes that the case be solved. "You pray for me," Brown told him, "and I’ll pray for you."

June 21, 4:45 a.m.

The Washington Gas employee’s front porch had been set on fire the very day after Brown’s. He was living with his fiancÈe and their two children in a single hotel room in Greenbelt. According to the fiancÈ3e, who spoke on condition of anonymity, they slept two to the bed and two to the couch for nearly three months, often the mother sleeping with the daughter and the father with the son. It was summertime, and at first the kids enjoyed playing in the hotel’s swimming pool. But the novelty soon passed, and they missed home.

The fire had charred much of the front of their District Heights, Md., house. That night, the mother woke to the crackling sound made by her siding as it buckled. She quickly rousted the children and called 911, and her fiancÈ turned a garden hose on the fire. Once outside, the mother watched as her 10-year-old daughter convulsed and vomited—not from smoke inhalation, but merely from the sight of her home burning. "She understood what happened. Her nerves were shot," the mother says. She figures that her son, who’s only 6, was too young to have such an emotional response.

Although they learned the night of the fire that it was deliberately set, they didn’t know their fire was tied to a serial pattern until they saw their home on the news one day. "The first for me to hear it was linked to the serial arsonist was through the media," the mother says. Once the story exploded, she tried to keep her children away from the television during the news hour, and she changed the channel whenever an arson item ran. The hubbub seemed inescapable during the summer. She doesn’t mind at all the media’s waning interest in the story. "We try not to think about it anymore," she says.

Shortly after their fire, the parents learned that they would be dropped by their insurance company. They had made their second claim within a term—the previous being a broken water heater in 2001—so the company was not obligated to renew the contract. "None of the major carriers would accept me," the mother says. She reluctantly moved to an inferior plan for high-risk homeowners.

"We’re trying to move on with our lives, although it’s a daily thought," she says. "You try not to think about it, but you do."

Sept. 8, 3:45 a.m.

Nights have been hard for Susan Smith.

The 44-year-old spent the first two months after her September fire at a relative’s house. When she returned to her Quackenbos Street NW home in late fall, the real anxieties began.

She knew it was against all logic that the arsonist would return, but the low probability provided little comfort. "At first, I kept hearing that crackling noise," she says, referring to the sound her fire had made as it ate at her front door and siding. "If I heard anything outdoors, I had to get up and look….You hear a leaf rustle and it freaks you out."

Even if rest had been possible, part of her didn’t want it. Smith, who lives alone, started setting her alarm clock for the middle of the night. She would wake up in the dark and walk around her house, peering out the windows at blackness. "I didn’t see anyone at all. There was nobody," she says. Like other victims, she got to thinking too much about the arsonist, mulling over the seeming randomness of houses he chose. "I couldn’t see any common points between everybody," says Smith. "Young, old, different neighborhoods."

She faithfully set the alarm for three weeks straight. Eventually, she stopped—not because she felt safe, but because she lost the energy to be vigilant. "After a while, you’re exhausted," she says. "Now it’s just a headache. I don’t think [other people] realize what it takes to get back to normal."

Smith is the rare victim who had to escape from her fire alone.

As she was sleeping, someone ignited a flammable liquid on her front steps. While the flames crawled up her door frame, one of her two cats entered her second-floor bedroom in a frenzy, screeching and leaping from her bed to the dresser. "Back and forth, back and forth. She wouldn’t leave you alone," Smith recalls. She screamed at the animal to stop.

Then she heard glass shatter. When she got out of bed thinking her other cat had knocked something over, she spotted the flickering of orange light outside her bedroom window. The electricity had gone out, so she had to feel her way down the stairs to the back entrance, where she groped for the keyhole to unlock the door and let herself out. "I had to rethink my escape plans," she says.

She learned from fire officials on the scene that it was arson. Despite the media clamor during the summer months, Smith didn’t hear of the serial arsonist until she was standing on her front lawn as her house smoldered. The story had been dead until just four days earlier, when another fire was set in P.G. County after a two-month lull.

"It comes in, it messes up your life, and then goes on with its business," says Smith. "Every time it happens, you know how they felt that morning. All the confusion. What happened? Why me? Is it personal? Or is it just some nut?" And it’s not only fear that she feels. "You get your anger phase. Every thought. You think about getting a voodoo doll and just burning it."

There was about $20,000 in damage to Smith’s modest two-story home. The repairs were supposed to be completed months ago, but the flood of insurance claims following Hurricane Isabel set the restoration back indefinitely. She has a new wooden door, but the siding beside the door frame, along with the concrete steps, remains blackened. "They’d work for a week or two, then stop, then pick it up again," she says.

She plans on getting a security camera for her house.

Lately she’s been sleeping better. Like some of the other arson victims, Smith has found a strange respite in the colder, shut-in months: "It helps when winter comes. You close everything up and don’t hear rustling." CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.

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