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A Former Police Chief In Md. Was A 'Serial Arsonist,' Authorities Say

Former Laurel, Md., police chief David Crawford is under arrest, facing dozens of criminal charges related to a string of arson attacks on homes and garages.
Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department
Former Laurel, Md., police chief David Crawford is under arrest, facing dozens of criminal charges related to a string of arson attacks on homes and garages.

Updated at 3:15 p.m. ET

After David Crawford left his job as the police chief of Laurel, Md., in 2010, he spent the next decade nursing grudges and setting fires to punish others, investigators say. In a stunning turn of events, Crawford, a law enforcement veteran, is now under arrest and facing dozens of charges in connection to at least 12 fires at homes, garages and cars.

Crawford was a "serial arsonist," according to the Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department. It adds that investigators' suspicions about Crawford were confirmed when a search of his house turned up a " target list" of fire victims on his cellphone.

Crawford, 69, was denied bond at a bail review hearing Thursday morning, Howard County Police Chief Lisa Myers said at a news conference.

The charges against Crawford include 12 counts of 1st-degree attempted murder – because many of the victims were clearly at home when the fires were lit, officials say.

"All of the fires were at night. In six of the arsons, the victim and their families were inside their homes asleep," the Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department said.

Taken together, the arson victims map out elements of Crawford's personal and professional life. They include another former Laurel police chief and two other former law enforcement officials, along with a former city official in Laurel. Also on the list: a pair of Crawford's relatives, two of his former doctors and someone who lives in his neighborhood.

One man was targeted three separate times: a fire hit his townhouse in Clarksburg, Md., on Sept. 5 , 2016, then another struck the same address one year later. After the man and his wife moved to a new home in the same town, a third fire was lit in November of 2020, according to the charging document.

The records identify the man as Crawford's stepson, adding that the two had a "strained" relationship that was marked by arguments.

When investigators in one Maryland county shared a video of an arsonist at work, their peers in other counties recognized similarities to a suspect in their own cases. Their collaboration eventually led to David Crawford, a former police chief.
/ Prince George's County Police Department
Prince George's County Police Department
When investigators in one Maryland county shared a video of an arsonist at work, their peers in other counties recognized similarities to a suspect in their own cases. Their collaboration eventually led to David Crawford, a former police chief.

The first arson occurred in 2011; the last was in November of 2020. The fires were set in five different counties, but thanks to a connection between victims that was made last year, investigators were able to link Crawford to 11 fires in which he now faces charges, and a twelfth in which he is suspected.

In all of the crimes, "The arsonist exhibited a similar pattern of behavior using gallon jugs filled with gasoline and a stick wrapped in cloth to set the fires," the Prince George's Fire Department said.

The very first fire in the case was captured on a home video surveillance system. Investigators said that as they reviewed that and other video recordings, they became increasingly certain that a lone arsonist was at work in several Maryland counties.

While community tips and witnesses were credited with helping build a case against Crawford, Prince George's County Battalion Chief Shajahan Jagtiani said a breakthrough came when his county, after running out of leads in a 2019 arson, decided to post surveillance video of the arsonist online.

When an investigator in Montgomery County saw the video early last year, alarm bells went off.

The investigator told them "this suspect looked strikingly similar to his suspect" in a fire, Prince George's Police Department Detective Thomas Smith said. Soon afterward, the two started to meet and share information, convinced they were chasing the same man. From there, the case kept growing, Smith added.

That Montgomery County official was Lt. Christopher Moe, who said the video reminded him of fires he and other colleagues believed were the work of a single arsonist — the attacks on Crawford's stepson.

"That surely looks exactly like the person in my video," Moe recalled thinking when he saw the footage from the neighboring county.

That initial arson in May of 2011 came months after Crawford was asked to resign from his job as chief of police in Laurel, according to court documents. The victim in that attack, the records state, was Martin Flemion, who was then the deputy city administrator. The documents add that Crawford and Flemion "did not have a good working relationship" during Crawford's tenure leading the police department.

Surveillance video of the arson at Flemion's home shows the suspect pouring jugs of gasoline on Flemion's city-issued Ford Explorer and another car in his driveway, before igniting them with a makeshift torch. The crime was also witnessed by a neighbor – who said that as he came outside to investigate a commotion, he saw a white male lighting a car on fire. The witness added that as he saw the man, the arsonist accidentally set his own clothes on fire.

"The witness advised that he saw the suspect stomping his shoe in the road, in an attempt to extinguish the fire," the charging document against Crawford states. It adds that investigators found a black Nike shoe, size 10, in the road. They also found other items – including "a pair of almost completely consumed (by fire) jeans in the storm drain" nearby.

Crawford wears a size 10, and photos on his Facebook page show him wearing what appear to be the same style shoes, the document adds. When Crawford's home and electronic devices were later searched, investigators found that shortly after the incident, he had posted to a medical forum, saying he had recently sustained a burn.

Another victim was retired City of Laurel Police Chief Richard McLaughlin, who was promoted from his deputy chief post after Crawford resigned.

Fire crews were called to McLaughlin's home in March of 2019, "to find a detached garage, two automobiles parked in the driveway and the adjacent occupied dwelling on fire," according to the charging document.

That 2019 arson attack was also caught on video, once again showing a man carrying two one-gallon plastic jugs, the charging document states. The arsonist, wearing a hoodie and black gloves, poured a "trailer" of gas down the driveway, which he then lit.

"The fire extended from the origin at the garage and then spread to the nearby cars and then the occupied home of the victim where the victim and his family were asleep," the document says.

Crawford now faces a raft of criminal charges, including attempted murder, arson, and malicious burning.

Investigators say they found a trail of digital clues that point to Crawford's role as an arsonist, including data from the Apple Health App on his cellphone that showed he was up and active in the middle of the night on the dates of the fires.

They also say he did web research about some of the fire victims, as well as Google Map directions to their neighborhoods. And they say that after the fires, he sought information about how much damage had been done.

At least 10 fire and police agencies at the state and local level were involved in developing the case against Crawford, reflecting its complexity and the multiple locations of the arson attacks.

Five of the arson fires were in Howard County – which includes Ellicott City, where Crawford lives. At least two fires were set in Prince George's County, which sits along the eastern border of Washington, D.C. Three more struck in Montgomery County, north of Washington. One arson was reported in Frederick County, and another in Charles County.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.