Arson Suspect Admits Racism Sparked Md. Fires

Racial resentment is cited as the reason for what was reportedly the most expensive residential arson case in Maryland state history. Fires set in late 2004 led to more than $10 million in damage to an upscale development near a nature preserve. One of the five suspects recently pleaded guilty and admitted that he was motivated by racism, because black families had moved into the neighborhood.

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While many neighborhoods across the country have successfully integrated, there are still places where blacks and other minorities are not always welcome. That appears to have been the situation in connection to a fire set late last year in Maryland. It's believed to be the most expensive residential arson case in the state's history. One of five suspects pleaded guilty recently and said he targeted the new subdivision because many of the home buyers were African-American. He'll be sentenced next month. Nancy Marshall-Genzer reports.

NANCY MARSHALL-GENZER reporting:

The fires in the Hunters Brook development 25 miles south of Washington caused about $10 million worth of damage. Ten houses were destroyed. Some buyers were just days away from moving in. Many were African-American, like Sylvester Kelly(ph). Kelly settled in less than a week before the fires were set, the night of December 6th. Kelly's house was spared. He slept soundly through the night and didn't notice the fires one street over until he was leaving for work at about 5 AM. Police later blocked the entrance to Hunters Brook. When they arrested five suspects, Kelly was relieved.

Mr. SYLVESTER KELLY (Hunters Brook Resident): I feel really safe that they caught the guilty culprit. That's what really makes me feel more comfortable, and then seeing that these gentlemen are pretty young in age--they're just young, stupid kids, in my opinion.

MARSHALL-GENZER: The suspect who pleaded guilty is young; Jeremy Paradis(ph) is 21, but he's old enough to have decided that he didn't want African-American neighbors. Paradis fits a pattern, says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Potok says some young whites are envious of the affluent minorities moving into their neighborhoods.

Mr. MARK POTOK (Southern Poverty Law Center): I think it is--it's a kind of resentment. You know, they're--you know, and it stems in many ways from racist feelings. `I'm white. I ought to be doing better.' You know, `Look at these black families moving in. They're very upper-middle-class. You know, they have sort of all the latest accoutrements, and that ain't right.'

MARSHALL-GENZER: Potok says this isn't a new phenomenon, but it's intensified by the fact that young whites who don't go to college can't get good-paying factory jobs like their parents did. When money's tight, Potok says, they're more likely to lash out.

(Soundbite of passing vehicle)

MARSHALL-GENZER: There was more lashing out in the southern Maryland suburbs after the arson here at Hunters Brook, where new homes are still being constructed. In February, someone drove through many of the area's subdivisions in the middle of the night, throwing neatly packaged bundles of racist leaflets in driveways. Captain Mike Wyant of the Charles County Sheriff's Department believes these are isolated incidents. His office has been working to ensure that they don't become regular occurrences by holding community meetings on weeknights.

Captain MIKE WYANT (Charles County Sheriff's Department): We do know that the county's changing, and that's going to present very significant, you know, issues to us as far as being able to adapt to those changes, those kinds of things. The basic question at the end of the night were: What do you see that we can do to address, you know, the changing environment? And, you know, where can we go as a community to devise plans and keep up with that?

MARSHALL-GENZER: Wyant meets regularly with an African-American group called the Ministers Alliance of Charles County and Vicinity. The alliance's executive director, Sandy Washington, says she knows there are people in her community who think folks who look like her don't belong.

Ms. SANDY WASHINGTON (Executive Director, Ministers Alliance of Charles County and Vicinity): People believe that. Some believe it because they don't know any better. Others, I don't know why they believe it. But we believe that that's not the majority, and we also believe that those that believe it because they don't know any better, we want to teach them better.

(Soundbite of hose)

MARSHALL-GENZER: Back at Hunters Brook, another resident, Rafael Ninez(ph), is washing his SUV. Ninez says he feels safe, but that's partly because he keeps guns and pit bulls in his house for protection. Ninez says he feels the tensions between newcomers, like himself, and longtime residents, but he says they will have to accept changes, including neighbors who might not look like them.

Mr. RAFAEL NINEZ (Hunters Brook Resident): Granted, a lot of these people been here a long time, but they gotta expect that, you know? It's just, you know, where we're living now, you know? They don't like it, they can move to Tennessee somewhere out in--you know, they want to go down--go retire or something, somewhere where nobody's around you. I don't know.

MARSHALL-GENZER: As Ninez speaks, construction crews continue to hammer away at more new houses being built in the next block. Eventually, the subdivision is expected to grow to at least 500 homes. Ninez won't be going anywhere, and neither will his new neighbors. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Marshall-Genzer.

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