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Troubled neighborhood has new battle: arson

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 17, 2003

CAPITOL HEIGHTS, Md. - The residents of Abel Avenue live a few hundred feet over the border of Washington, D.C., but they endure the slings and arrows of urban life: drug dealing, house break-ins, stolen cars.

"It's horrible," said Greg Hubbard, a Pepsi Cola driver and self-appointed block watch captain. "Everything we've got - the lawnmower, the grill, the propane tank - we got to lock up. It shouldn't be that way."

Now a deadlier criminal is preying on the area. Someone - perhaps more than one person - is setting houses afire. Arsons have plagued southeastern Washington and bordering Maryland towns for the last three months. Investigators have linked six blazes and are studying 18 others.

In almost every case the fire was lit on or near a front porch in the wee morning hours. One Washington inferno killed an 86-year-old woman who was too frail to leap from her two-story home.

Police haven't said whether they are focusing on any suspects.

Hubbard is not so much scared as exasperated: "I've been here two years and I'm thinking of moving."

The fires have touched on some of the anxiety that pulsed through these parts last fall when a sniper terrorized the area and killed 10 people. Two men will soon be tried in the 13 shootings.

"I think somebody is trying to be a copycat off the sniper case," said Tracy Minor, 26, of Capitol Heights. The northern face of her home was torched on July 13. "In this case instead of using a gun, he's using fire."

Most of her neighbors, though, don't lump the fires with that fear factor. There's little outrage, save that against the police (they don't patrol as often as neighbors would like) and at the town (some streets have no lights). A Prince George's County police spokesman said he didn't know enough about the crime levels in that area to comment.

Instead, resignation hangs over the neighborhood.

Drive around the potholed roads of some of Washington's most violent strips, then across the lower-left side of the district's imperfect diamond, past the Victory in Christ Over Addictions offices and the spraypainted tag "RIP Greg+ Pete" and head deeper toward the worn, leafy side streets crammed with red brick houses and wooden ranch homes with iron gates over the doors. This is the heart of the arsonist's turf. You will pass structures with melted vinyl siding and window frames ringed in black like raccoon eyes.

Many neighbors agree that the fires are scary, but not more than the "hood boys" who dispense cocaine at night from the 1-Stop Market's parking lot and threaten permanent damage to anyone who calls the police. Here on the border of D.C., where money has always been tight and people scramble to stay a paycheck ahead of the bank, where having a back yard and driveway are no insurance against urban ills, a rash of latenight torchings is just another hardship to endure.

"It's how they do in a black neighborhood. What can we say? Shout, scream, pout?" said Theresa Moore, who was visiting family on Ellis Street. Her aunt, Rebecca Pritchett, has endured burglaries, a stolen car and the killing of her son.

"You're dealing with an area that, unfortunately, suffers a lot of fires," said Mark Brady, spokesman for Prince George's County Fire and EMS Rescue Services.

Brady said that house fires generally plague poorer neighborhoods. Residents don't know or don't follow fire safety tips. Smoke detectors, if they're installed at all, don't always work. And residents who are tight on money will often resort to using alternative forms of heat, like an oven.

An arsonist on the loose makes some of these issues worse.

Fire officials are trying to fight back by urging residents to invite them into their houses, get advice on where to install smoke detectors and create an emergency exit plan. District and county officials have organized meetings for residents so they can ask about the investigation's progress.

Residents say they are keeping porch lights lit all night, installing motion detector lights and thinking about erecting chain link fences.

Few people, however, are talking about forming neighborhood watch groups. Here your best defense is yourself.

"We're looking out for one another," said Minor, who lived in her house for just two months before the fire. "Me and my husband wake up at different times and go to the window and look out."

The Minors have bought a new air conditioning unit, but the new windows and shag carpeting still have to be installed.

They're wondering, "once we get everything done, will they be back?"

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