Virginia burning: Who is the arsonist of Accomack County?

A serial arsonist is bringing terror to rural communities on America's eastern seaboard

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.”

Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth gamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game