Suspicious fires plague Eastern Panhandle

January 05, 2000

See also: The damage so far

ArsonBy JULIE E. GREENE / Staff Writer

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - At least a dozen arsons or suspicious fires in the Eastern Panhandle during the last three months are still unsolved, according to fire and police investigators.

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Investigators said this week they have suspects in some of the fires, but they weren't yet prepared to charge anyone.

Bedington Volunteer Fire and Rescue Chief Robert Robinson said he hopes to form a task force later this month to compile information on the fires from the different agencies involved.

"What I'm trying to do is get all the agencies to sit down, and hopefully we can start solving some of these problems because they get out of hand," Robinson said.


While six of the 12 arsons or suspicious fires involved trailer homes, Robinson said it hasn't been determined whether they are related.

The different agencies need to compare notes and see if there is a pattern since many arsonists have their own particular methods, Robinson said.

Arsonists also tend to move around to prevent capture, he said.

Most of the fires have occurred throughout Berkeley County with at least two in Jefferson County.

The fire that has received the most attention occurred Nov. 13 at 211 E. Liberty St. in Martinsburg and resulted in the deaths of three small children.

Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely said she expects investigators to decide this week whether that fire was arson.

Corey Howard, 3, died the night of the fire from smoke inhalation and complications from heat. His older brother Mason, 4, died Nov. 17 and Corey's twin sister, Brandi, died Nov. 18.

The children's mother, Sara Howard, escaped injury by climbing onto a roof, where she yelled for someone to help her children.

Nine of the 12 suspicious fires in the Panhandle since Oct. 24 have been deemed arson, fire officials said.

Five were recently determined to be arson.

They are fires that:

  • Damaged a 329 Boyd Ave. home in Martinsburg on Nov. 1.
  • Burned to the ground a home along W.Va. 1 between Middleway and Summit Point, W.Va., on Oct. 24.
  • Burned a cabin on a road grader on Kabletown Road on Oct. 24.
  • Destroyed an unoccupied trailer home in Potomac Park Estates on Oct. 27.
  • Destroyed another unoccupied trailer home in Potomac Park Estates on Nov. 9.

While fire officials say it's possible some of the fires in the two counties are related, Martinsburg Fire Chief Brad Waldeck said he does't believe the three unsolved fires in the city are connected.

"As far as I know, there doesn't seem to be any apparent pattern or link," Waldeck said.

Solving suspicious fires takes time and hard work because the heat and flames tend to destroy evidence, he said.

It's important to get cooperation from residents and witnesses to solve these fires, Waldeck said.

Outside the city there have been several fires that have destroyed vacant or unoccupied trailer homes, but it is unclear whether they are related.

The state fire marshal investigating several of those fires could not be reached for comment.

Independent Fire Co. Chief Ed Smith said he has a hard time believing the two Oct. 24 arsons in Jefferson County aren't related to two arsons in Berkeley County the same day.

On Oct. 24 an undetermined accelerant was used to burn an unoccupied mobile home on Arden-Nollville Road. While firefighters were putting out the blaze, someone intentionally set fire to the porch of a nearby house.

The Berkeley County Sheriff's Department is investigating those fires as well as some suspicious fires around Sportsman's Paradise, said Capt. Curtis Keller.

Keller said the investigator may have a suspect in one of the fires.

A Dec. 29 fire around 3 p.m. that destroyed a trailer being used as a home on Spec Run Road was recently ruled accidental, said South Berkeley Volunteer Fire Co. Chief Rusty Morgan.

Last Friday, an early morning fire destroyed a 317 S. Church St. house in Martinsburg and damaged a neighboring house and car.

Martinsburg City Police Sgt. John McMillen said the arsonist in that fire poured some kind of accelerant throughout the first and second floors, then ignited it.

McMillen said he believes the arsonist entered through a back window and left through the rear door.

A man was seen leaving the house just before firefighters arrived, McMillen said. Whether the house was insured is unclear because ownership was in transition, he said.

Anyone with information can call fire or police or leave an anonymous tip with Berkeley County Crime Solvers at 1-304-267-4999.

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