It’s not quite the Crime (or rather Crimes) Of The Century. But a remote corner of rural Virginia has spawned a mystery that baffles police and has driven locals to prayer: who is responsible for a plague of arson attacks that have been occurring roughly every other night since last November?
So far, no one has been killed or injured, and the targets are mainly empty and derelict buildings: abandoned houses, barns or garages. But the number of attacks is staggering: at least 72 in the last four months, the bulk of them along or near US Route 13, the highway that links Accomack County on the state’s Eastern Shore with the outside world.
Systematic arson is far from unknown in America. Detroit, for instance, underwent the fiery ordeal of “Devil’s Night” on 30 October for decades, when vandals would set ablaze scores of the abandoned structures disfiguring a metropolis whose population has halved in 50 years.
But Accomack County is no crime-infested urban jungle. Though English explorers first landed there in 1603 – four years before the establishment of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the US, on the opposite side of Chespeake Bay – it is among the poorest and most thinly populated parts of Virginia. Barely 33,000 inhabitants are scattered over 450 square miles of overwhelmingly agricultural land, much of it wetlands and flat coastal inlets. Now, it appears, it is also home to one of the country’s most prolific arsonists.
Most of the attacks happen at night, between 6pm and midnight. Weekends are most popular (14 attacks on a Saturday, Sunday and Monday, nine on a Tuesday, eight on a Thursday, seven on Friday and six on Wednesdays.) Police have tried everything to crack the case, including a tip line and a reward of $25,000 (£17,000) – big money in these parts – and random checkpoints on local roads.
But to no avail. The person, or persons, responsible is still at large, and knows the lie of the land. Some of the fires appear to have been set so that they are undetected for an hour or two. “Whoever is doing this is really doing their homework,” an Accomack County official told The Washington Post.
At the best of times, serial arson is a mysterious business, and this particular outbreak has spurred all manner of theories. Some suggest that the original perpetrator has inspired copycats. Some put it down to thrill-seeking. Others say the fires are the work of a former soldier, policeman or ex-firefighter, with inside or specialist knowledge. The universal assumption, though, is that he/she (or they) is a local.
“We feel certain the person or persons responsible for these fires is a resident of Accomack County and is known to local residents,” Captain Tim Reibel, of the Virginia police, told reporters two days after Christmas, when the number of suspected arsons had already reached 38. Which makes it all the odder that after four months, in a community inevitably described as “tight-knit,” no culprit has yet come to light.
Conceivably, the arsonist is acting out of a desire to rid the area of ancient eyesores – such as the Whispering Pines Motel on US 13, once a bustling local hub but long since derelict, and which went up in flames on the evening of 12 March.
Or maybe the person is acting out of a grudge, a common motive for arson. “Someone thinks they have been treated unfairly, and is seeking revenge,” Charlie Russell, whose family built the original motel in 1932, told a TV station. What is unquestionable, however, is the strain on the county’s police and firemen, even with the assistance of state law enforcement and now, it is said, of FBI agents expert in arson cases.
Firefighters in Accomack are mainly volunteers and overworked. “It’s been months of a living hell,” Jeff Beall, fire chief for the small town of Tasley, said. “It’s taking a toll on family life. It is taking a toll on the station’s financial situation and our personal financial lives.” There’s not even been time to tabulate the extra hours worked, let alone raise donations to help pay for them.
And the mystery remains. After 18,000 man hours devoted to the case, police claim to have “several strong leads,” but have made no arrests. In the meantime 100 people attended a prayer vigil at a local school this week, at which the pastor read from Psalm 37: “Do not fret because of evildoers or be envious of those who do wrong.”