HOT ARSON TIMES Why would firebugs, fireflies, pyromaniacs, and others be deterred from satisfying their criminal desires to set fires in structures and endanger lives when convicted arsonists face so little time in the slammer?
BY KEN ROSSIGNOL
THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY
UPPER MARLBORO, MD. – When the latest arson charges against volunteer firefighters in Maryland were announced in 2021, in a list of indictments by Prince Georges County States Attorney Alisha Braveboy, the allegations against the firefighters associated with West Lanham Hills Firehouse were damning.
Now, nearly eighteen months later, what has been the outcome of those charges against men who should be heroes instead of allegedly endangering the lives of the public and their fellow firefighters who responded to the fires they are accused of setting?
There is nothing new about the lack of accountability for those who set fires.
Arson fires are started by sickos out for a cheap thrill and generally are coddled by officials, mental health advocates, and the destructive power exercised by lawmakers who keep arsonists on the prowl waiting to start their subsequent fire, which may also take lives.
Structures are also torched by disgruntled spouses, employees, or building owners anxious to gain the insurance payout for their property.
The arsonists come from every facet of life.
A massage parlor employee torched a building in Baltimore, three football players completely burned out the Fort Hunt High School in Alexandria, Virginia, while drinking one night during Christmas break in 1979, and an Ocean City volunteer firefighter first began setting fires in 1986 and is still at it in 2022; a Delaware man set a fire that took the life of a firefighter in Ocean City in 1984 – are just a few of the instances of arson in the region.
FIVE PG FIREFIGHTERS WERE INDICTED FOR ARSON IN 2021; what is the status of their criminal charges eighteen months later?
Jeremy Todd Hawkins of 12020 Apple Knoll Court, North Potomac, Md. – Former West Lanham Hills VFD member. Indicted on 14 counts, including 1st Degree Arson and multiple Conspiracy to Commit 1st Degree Arson and Misconduct in Office charges. An arrest warrant was issued. Hawkins was taken into custody on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. Court records show that sentencing for Hawkins was continued to August 2, 2022.
Nicholas Joseph Holzberger, 20, (DOB 10/2001) of 5006 Somerset Road, Riverdale, Md. – Former West Lanham Hills VFD member. Indicted on ten counts, including Conspiracy to Commit 1st Degree Arson and multiple Misconduct in Office charges. Holzberger was found guilty of conspiracy to commit first-degree arson on June 1, 2022, in Prince Georges County Circuit Court. Court records show that on August 16, 2022, court costs and fines were partially paid. Maryland prison inmate records show Holzberger is not incarcerated as of September 29, 2022.
George Shaw Smith, 25, (DOB 12/29/1996) of 37523 Oak Green Lane, Purcellville, Va. – Former West Lanham Hills VFD member. Indicted on 15 counts, including 2nd Degree Arson and multiple Conspiracy to Commit Arson and Misconduct in Office charges. In the case, Smith was represented by Steve Chalkin, attorney, which resulted in a plea deal and guilty to Count One of the indictments of conspiracy to commit first-degree arson, which was reached on August 29, 2022. Court records show that a fine and court costs were assessed on September 15, 2022, and on September 20, 2022, Smith’s attorney filed a routine motion for reconsideration of the sentence.
Jay St. John, 25, of Centreville, VA – Former West Lanham Hills VFD member. Indicted on 13 counts, including multiple Conspiracy to Commit Arson and Misconduct in Office charges.
Cole Andrew Vazquez, 22, (DOB 05/1999) of 12321 Firtree Lane, Bowie, Md. – Former member of West Lanham Hills VFD. Indicted on 12 counts, including 1st Degree Arson and multiple Conspiracy to Commit Arson and Misconduct in Office charges. John Joseph Pikulski IV, of Upper Marlboro, Md., is listed in court records as the attorney for Vazquez. The next court event for Vazquez is set for October 11, 2022, as the sentencing hearing. Court records reveal that Vazquez was cited for violating the terms of probation on March 8, 2022.
PROSECUTOR’S REPORT: Below is the plea deals’ outcome in these cases.
DEALS FOR PG FIREFIGHTERS IN THE ARSON SQUAD ALLOW THEM TO BE FREE
The first conclusions to the criminal charges against the Prince Georges County Fire Department and EMS personnel, some of the arson fires dating back to 2019, according to Prince Georges County States Attorney Spokesperson Denise Douglas, are as follows:
- Nicholas Holzberger, June 1, 2022 – Five Years of Supervised Probation, 120 hours of Community Service, No Involvement with Fire Suppression Activities
- Jay St. John, August 15, 2022 – Five Years Supervised Probation, No Involvement with Fire Suppression Activities
- George Shaw Smith, August 29, 2022 – Two Years Supervised Probation, No Involvement with Fire Suppression Activities
- Giancarlo Reyes, of New Carrollton, was given credit for time served of approximately 475 days. Giancarlo Reyes, September 20, 2022 – Five Years Imprisonment (suspend all but time-served), Five Years Supervised Probation, No Involvement with Fire Suppression Activities.
- Francis Ortiz Oro September 23, 2022 – Ten Years Imprisonment on Count I, Conspiracy to Commit First Degree Arson, and Five Years Imprisonment on Count II, Conspiracy to Commit Second Degree Arson, to be served concurrently (suspend all but time served), Five Years’ Probation (first two supervised), 80 hours Community Service Assisting Burn Victims (with sentences to be served consecutively if probation is violated)
The remaining Defendants to be sentenced are:
Cole Vasquez, on October 11, 2022, and Jeremy Hawkins, on December 5, 2022.
Jeremy Todd Hawkins of 12020 Apple Knoll Court, North Potomac, Md. – Former West Lanham Hills VFD member. Indicted on 14 counts, including 1st Degree Arson and multiple Conspiracy to Commit 1st Degree Arson and Misconduct in Office charges.
The following information was provided at the time of the indictments:
The investigation led Detectives and Investigators to conduct more than sixty court-ordered search warrants, including but not limited to video surveillance devices at the West Lanham Hills VFD station and electronic items belonging to members of the West Lanham Hills Volunteer Fire Department.
Preliminarily, those searches and the subsequent investigation revealed that the former firefighters who have been indicted had knowledge of and were involved in the planning of arsons for the purpose of responding to the incident scenes and extinguishing the fires. A total of four fires of unoccupied structures are at the center of the case.
Preliminary evidence provides that the civilian suspects set all four fires with the exception of the first arson on Cipriano Road (below) during which the two civilian suspects were accompanied by former firefighter Smith. Detectives report that all of those indicted were aware of the fires occurring before, during, and after the fires were set. It was invaluable assistance from the community after the fourth fire that initially led Investigators and detectives to the civilians and the break in the case that revealed the criminal scheme involving the former firefighters. No civilians were injured in any of the fires.
ARSONS INVOLVED IN THE CASE:
December 31, 2019, at 12:16 AM in the 6700 block of Cipriano Road in Lanham. A fire was intentionally set in a shed on the property of a vacant house. Property damage was estimated at $5,000.
January 16, 2020, at 2:03 AM in the 6300 block of Sheridan Street in Riverdale. A fire was intentionally set in the kitchen of a vacant house. Property damage was estimated at $150,000. One of the indicted firefighters did receive minor burns while extinguishing the fire but did not report his injury at the time to incident command.
January 18, 2020, at 2:04 AM in the 4700 block of 68th Avenue in Landover Hills. A fire was intentionally set inside the kitchen of an unoccupied house for sale. Property damage was estimated at $75,000. A third civilian, 20-year-old Christopher Morales of Hyattsville, MD, was arrested and charged on February 17, 2021, with 1st Degree Arson, 2nd Degree Arson, and Malicious Destruction charges for his alleged involvement in this fire.
January 20, 2020, at 1:50 AM in the 9500 block of Wellington Street in Lanham. A fire was intentionally set in the kitchen of an unoccupied house for sale. Property damage was estimated at $30,000.
PLEA DEALS AND LENIENT SENTENCES ARE HISTORIC IN THE REGION AS ARSONISTS BURN THROUGH THE DECADES
In spite of the seriousness and danger to lives of arson, most culprits are never caught and, if caught, are seldom punished.
A study funded by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration in 1978 found that in 1975 there were an estimated 1,000 deaths, including those of 45 firefighters, and 10,000 injuries from arsons that year, with the cost in the billions of dollars. Cited as a stumbling block to gaining arrests in the study was the simple fact that there are seldom witnesses.
In 2022, the massive propagation of surveillance cameras makes a big difference in gathering evidence of the crime of arson. Primary motives for arson are revenge and vandalism, while juveniles account for around sixty percent of arson fires. Fraud is estimated to be about five percent of arsons.
In Howard County, Maryland, during a ten-day period, in 1978, six arson fires were started by students in the schools. An arson fire in Anne Arundel County elementary school destroyed four classrooms, and one firefighter was injured fighting the early morning blaze.
OCEAN CITY FIREFIGHTER SET THE FIRST FIRES IN 1988 AND IS STILL AT IT IN 2022
Advancing to 2022, fire damage is more expensive, more people are killed and injured, and repercussions for those actually caught and convicted are still lacking. Ocean City volunteer firefighter John Edward Cropper, first convicted of arson in a spree in November and December of 1986, causing millions of dollars in damage, was back in court facing new arson charges in 2011 and given ten years in prison with all but 18 months suspended and given a healthy period of probation.
Cropper was indicted by the Worcester County Grand Jury on January 25, 2022, with two counts of felony first-degree arson, two counts of malicious property damage, and two counts of reckless endangerment. On September 14, 2022, John Edward Cropper was found guilty on all counts, and sentencing is set for January 3, 2023.
Cropper was a fire cadet in high school in 1983 and a probationary member of the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Department for a year at the time the arson spree began. Cropper was a certified pyromaniac by a Maryland forensic psychiatrist in 2007 at the Clifton Perkins State Psychiatric Hospital. Cropper was supposed to be kept in the facility until he was deemed no longer dangerous to others or himself.
CONVICTED ARSONISTS SPENT LITTLE TIME IN THE SLAMMER
Mark A. Mullikin, 20, 0f 8409 Brady Drive, in Bowie, Maryland, was charged with setting fire in a building that was home to two antique shops and an upholstery store in Bowie that occurred in April and August of 1978. According to the Washington Post, Mullikin, a Bowie volunteer firefighter, was indicted by the Prince Georges County Grand Jury on three counts, each of storehouse burning and destruction of property. There was a string of fires occurring at antique shops in Bowie in 1978. There are no court records available that show the outcome of the charges.
Randomly selected for examination of what happened to those charged with arson in Maryland were Carroll J. Busick, 31, of Ocean City, Md., Ronald E. Sprouse, 38, of Forestville, Md., and, Robert L. Williams, 37, of Clinton, Md. The trio was picked up by police on October 25, 1979, following a fire at the Maryland Inn at Caroline Street and the Boardwalk. Shortly after the Maryland Inn fire, a gas station and a bar were found to have fires set.
In Carroll County, Maryland, home of the former Western Maryland College, renamed McDaniel College after a large endowment, was the scene of seven suspicious fires in 1988. According to the then Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Bob Thomas, Carroll County had 75 arsons in 1988, up a whopping 41 percent from the previous year. An investigation into those arson fires resulted in the conviction of Richard Md. Fisher, 23, of Reisterstown and a former security guard at the college. Fisher was convicted of setting fire to Blanche Ward Hall dormitory. The fire caused all of the occupants of the dorm to be relocated, including the Alpha Nu Omega sorority. Richard M. Fisher (DOB 12/13/1965) was facing five felony arson counts in Carroll County Circuit Court.
ST. MARY’S COLLEGE STUDENTS BOMBARDED DRUG RAID OFFICERS WITH MOLOTOV COCKTAILS
Three men were charged with setting firebombs off when they learned of a police narcotics raid on a dormitory room at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in St. Mary’s City on May 16, 1973. Charged with the manufacture and possession of Molotov cocktails were James C. Burke, 20, of Lexington Park, Md., and a student at the college along with Michael C. Kirkwood, 21, of Leonardtown, Maryland. Another college student, who was seventeen at the time, was not identified by police who charged him as a juvenile. Police conducting the drug raid barricaded themselves in a dorm room and had to call for reinforcements resulting in forty more officers responding and using tear gas to restore order. The Enterprise reporter Jack Kershaw questioned why the police raided at the time that they did in the late evening and noted the prevalence of the attitude in the culture of the college that it was an oasis of free-wheeling drug use. The Maryland State Police conducted an investigation for several months before the raid, purchasing drugs from students living in the dorms. The firebombs thrown at the police caused little damage, and court records are not available to show how the St. Mary’s States Attorney disposed of the charges.
An online obituary in 2019 for James Leo Burke III indicates that he went on to a career with the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services and was praised for his dedication to his mission by Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Gregory Wells, who served as a prosecutor in Calvert County where Burke worked.
The results of other arson fires in Maryland that year didn’t work out as well for others, as there were sixteen deaths and over $40 million in damages. The big winner in 1988 for arson fires was Queen Anne’s County, on the Eastern Shore, where twenty-six arson fires took place.
In 1983, a resident of a group home for the handicapped in Northwest Baltimore was charged on November 1, 1983, with a series of arson fires. James Albert Rimbach, 44, (DOB 05/23/1943) was a suspect in eight other cases and held on a bond of $100,000. There is no court record of an outcome of the charges in Anne Arundel County District Court.
Ocean City, Maryland, has seen more than its share of arson fires over the decades.
George Wallace Kern was charged with setting fire to the building, resulting in a nine-alarm fire on March 30, 2008. He was indicted by the Worcester County Circuit Court Grand Jury with two counts of first-degree arson and two counts of second-degree arson. Kern was an employee of the Dough Roller, which was destroyed in the fire, and a tee shirt shop next to it.
The origin of the fire was determined by Ocean City Fire Marshal to be in a narrow alley between the Dough Roller building and the historic Marty’s Playland. The fire destroyed much of the second floor of the building and roared through Playland with its antique machines and games. Much of Playland was saved and restored and actually opened for business that season.
Fire Marshals believed the cause of the fire to be accidental and found no evidence of either electrical or an accelerant. As the investigation continued, Kern told detectives he was viewing a new apartment that his employer was assigning him when he flipped a cigarette into a rubbish pile in the alley.
Following Kern being charged and jailed, he entered an Alford Plea to reckless endangerment in Worcester Circuit Court, and the States Attorney dropped the arson charges. Circuit Court Judge Alfred Truitt sentenced Kern to time served. The Maryland Coast Dispatch reported that Kern said he apologized, calling the fire an unfortunate accident and that he enjoyed working for Dough Rollers and looked forward to continuing to work for the company.
(Editor’s Note: Both the Washington Evening Star and the Baltimore Sun reported on the historic arson cases cited in this article and were essential to telling the story of arson in the region.)
MAURICE DEWS WAS SETTING DC ON FIRE, CONVICTED IN MARYLAND, AND FEDERAL COURT NETTED HIM A 25-YEAR SENTENCE, AND HE IS STILL IN THE SLAMMER
WASHINGTON, D.C – The United States Attorney in the District of Columbia made an announcement on November 4, 2011, that Maurice Dews entered a guilty plea to five counts of arson in a spree that lasted over three years. In one of the fires that Dews admitted setting, four District of Columbia firefighters were injured when fighting the fire in a vacant home in Northeast Washington.
The plea deal, according to U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., called for a twenty-five-year sentence in federal prison, and believe it or not, as of October 6, 2022, Dews is still in the slammer and is scheduled to stay there until November 5, 2032. Federal Judge Ann O’Regan Keary approved the plea deal and pronounced the sentence that landed Dews in prison.
According to a statement of facts signed by the government and the defendant, Dews started at least five fires in the District between January 2008 and June 2011. In addition, the defendant accepted responsibility in the statement of facts to three fires in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
In the statement of facts, Dews admitted starting these fires:
January 4, 2008: Dews entered a vacant unit inside a multi-story, occupied elderly community in the 4600 block of Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE and intentionally set a fire at about 12:15 a.m. The fire and smoke spread, forcing the residents of the building to evacuate. The fire caused approximately $15,000 in damage.
March 15, 2011: Dews entered a storage garage of an otherwise occupied single-family residence in an attached rowhouse in the 3500 block of Hertford Street NW at about 4 p.m. and intentionally set a fire. Soon afterward, he called 911 to notify authorities of the blaze. The fire caused damage to items in the garage. Had it not been extinguished, it could have threatened to damage adjoining property and threaten the security of people living in the area.
April 8, 2011: Dews entered a vacant single-family home in the 800 block of 48th Place NE at about 12:30 a.m. and intentionally set a fire. Although it was empty, the building is near several other occupied residences in a densely populated neighborhood. The fire quickly spread, threatening to consume the building and adjoining homes. Afterward, Dews was seen by at least two witnesses hiding suspiciously in the shadows and walking around the burning building.
As the fire continued to spread, Dews called 911. He also knocked on the door of a home next door to the fire to inform residents of the blaze. The household included two parents and several children, including a five-year-old. The fire caused about $152,000 in damage to the vacant home and another $20,000 in damage to the residence next door.
Members of D.C. Fire/EMS Rescue Squad # 3 were among the first responders, and they entered the residence, having no idea that the place was vacant, in order to save anyone who might be stranded inside. They soon realized that the fire was near its “flashpoint,” or the point in which the heat was growing so intense that the entire house could become engulfed in flames. The fire escalated just as they began to exit, and four firefighters suffered serious bodily injuries. These fire and rescue squad members – Charles “Chucky” Ryan III, Ramon Hounshell, Lt. Robert Alverado and Warren “Mike” Deavers” – were hospitalized after the fire and are permanently scarred from their burns. A fifth member – Teddy Douglas – also suffered burns.
June 14, 2011: Dews entered a vacant single-family residence in the 4500 block of Grant Street NE just after midnight and intentionally started a fire. He left the building, called 911, and alerted two residents next door to the fire. The fire caused about $202,000 in damage to the structure and another $20,000 in damage to the residence next door.
June 23, 2011: Dews entered a vacant single-family home in the 5000 block of Hayes Street NE, again just after midnight, and in another densely populated area that included a home for the elderly. He intentionally started a fire that caused about $249,000 in damage. Witnesses observed Dews staring at the fire as emergency personnel arrived to combat the flames.
The statement of offense also ties Dews to three fires in Prince George’s County. They include fires on May 1, 2007, in a vacant home in the 7600 block of Allendale Circle; Dec. 31, 2010, in a vacant home in the 3900 block of Warner Avenue, and May 2, 2011, in a vacant apartment in the 3900 block of Warner Avenue.