UPPER MARLBORO, Md. (7News) — A neighbor still has video on his cell phone of the house across the street on fire. It was January 16, 2020. The man doesn’t want to be identified but says the 2 a.m. fire was frightening.
“It was massive,” he recalls. “It burned for a couple hours. After putting it out you could see the roof collapsing.”
“It’s unacceptable and it’s disheartening and it makes us angry,” said Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy today, while announcing the indictments of five former volunteer firefighters from the West Lanham Hills Volunteer Fire Department.
They’re accused of setting not just that fire on Sheridan St. in Riverdale but also three others in the area during a month-long spree in December 2019 and January 2020.
“These are people that absolutely know the devastation that can be caused by fires,” Braveboy said.
Nobody was hurt fighting the fires or in the houses. They were all vacant at the time. Each was set, according to investigators, when the defendants would be on duty and the ones to respond. Recreation appears to be the only motive.
“It appears to be for the sole purpose of just being called in to service to extinguish the fire,” PGFD Spokesperson Jennifer Donelan said.
It’s the latest in a long list of problems for the West Lanham Hills VFD. Three weeks ago, their treasurer was indicted for allegedly embezzling more than $100,000 from the department. Also last year, they came under scrutiny for failing to respond at all to a fatal fire and were replaced by paid firefighters in one of their houses.
That neighbor on Sheridan Street, who still has to look at a burned-out house every day, says it makes him angry.
“Crazy, crazy,” he said. “ I mean I would never think people would do that.”
Those charged are:
- 26-year-old Jeremy Hawkins of North Potomac, Maryland. Indicted on 14 counts including 1st Degree Arson and multiple Conspiracy to Commit 1st Degree Arson and Misconduct in Office charges. Arrest warrant was issued. Hawkins was taken into custody on Wednesday, April 28, 2021.
- 19-year-old Nicholas Holzberger of Riverdale, Maryland. Indicted on 10 counts including Conspiracy to Commit 1st Degree Arson and multiple Misconduct in Office charges.
- 24-year-old George Smith of Purcelville, Virginia. Indicted on 15 counts including 2nd Degree Arson, and multiple Conspiracy to Commit Arson and Misconduct in Office charges.
- 24-year-old Jay St. John of Centreville, Virginia. Indicted on 13 counts including multiple Conspiracy to Commit Arson and Misconduct in Office charges.
- 21-year-old Cole Vazquez of Bowie, Maryland. Indicted on 12 counts including 1st Degree Arson and multiple Conspiracy to Commit Arson and Misconduct in Office charges.
The fires were set in late 2019 and early 2020. The details of each are as follows, according to the State’s Attorney’s office:
- December 31, 2019 at 12:16 AM in the 6700 block of Cipriano Road in Lanham. A fire was intentionally set in a shed on the property of a vacant house. Property damage was estimated at $5,000.
- January 16, 2020 at 2:03 AM in the 6300 block of Sheridan Street in Riverdale. A fire was intentionally set in the kitchen of a vacant house. Property damage was estimated at $150,000. One of the arrested, former firefighter Hawkins, did receive minor burns while extinguishing the fire but did not report his injury at the time to incident command.
- January 18, 2020 at 2:04 AM in the 4700 block of 68th Avenue in Landover Hills. A fire was intentionally set inside the kitchen of an unoccupied house for sale. Property damage was estimated at $75,000. A third civilian, 20-year-old Christopher Morales of Hyattsville, MD, was arrested and charged on February 17, 2021, with 1st Degree Arson, 2nd Degree Arson, and Malicious Destruction charges for his alleged involvement in this fire.
- January 20, 2020 at 1:50 AM in the 9500 block of Wellington Street in Lanham.
- A fire was intentionally set in the kitchen of an unoccupied house for sale. Property damage was estimated at $30,000.