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.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most