Authorities in Virginia's eastern shore are hunting a dangerous arsonist who appears to be growing bolder day by day.
The suspect, according to police, has set 38 fires in the past 45 days in Accomack County, Va. The first blaze was set on Nov. 12 in Hopeton, about 100 miles east of Richmond. The most recent fire was ignited Sunday, some 8 miles southwest in the town of Accomac.
"We've never had an arsonist destroy so many structures in such a short a period of time ... The arsonist is creating a climate of fear within our community," 1st Sgt. Jean-Paul N. Koushel, with the Virginia State Police, told reporters during a press conference.
While no one has died or been seriously injured, the blazes have left multiple structures in charred ruins.
Initially the structures set ablaze were barns, camper trailers and chicken coops, but the arsonist is becoming more brazen with each fire and has since moved on to abandoned homes and buildings. One of the more recent blazes involved an equipment building that housed a boat.
Koushel said the fires are putting a strain on local volunteer firefighters.
"It's been very difficult for our firemen ... It's a tremendous amount of fires," he said.
Authorities said it is possible that some of the fires were set by a copycat, but investigators believe most of the fires are the handiwork of the same person or persons.
"Based on our ongoing investigation, we feel certain that the person or persons responsible for these fires is a resident of Accomack County and is known to local residents," said Capt. Tim Reibel, commander of the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation's Chesapeake Field Office.
Reibel did not speculate further as to the arsonist's profile, other than to say the individual or individuals would likely be following media coverage of the crimes closely.
Dr. Scott A. Bonn, a serial killer expert and assistant professor of sociology at Drew University, told The Huffington Post that it is not uncommon for serial arsonists to be frustrated or disgruntled firefighters who fall into the category of pyromaniacs.
"This is similar to certain serial killers, such as BTK [Dennis Rader, the BTK serial killer], who has a college degree in criminal justice and wanted to be a police officer," Bonn said.
"The pyromaniac is compelled to start fires and often experiences a sexual climax by doing so," he continued. "He simply must do it and is powerless over the compulsion."
Scott Hyde, a fire chief and arson investigator in Albion, Pa., suspects, like Bonn, that the arsonist is somehow connected to the fire department and is possibly a volunteer firefighter. Hyde points to the time periods in which each of the fires has occurred -– between 8:30 p.m. and 4 a.m. –- and to the type of structures the arsonist has selected.
"If you look at the time of the fires, you notice they are being set at times when manpower is readily available to fight the fires," Hyde told HuffPost. "Volunteer departments have limited manpower during the day. So in looking at the avenue of a possible firefighter, that would also explain why abandoned buildings are being targeted: The individual would know that the firemen are not going to commit any forces to go inside of a derelict or abandoned building to put it out. A fireman would know they would surround it, drown it and let it go to the ground. That tells me whoever is responsible does not want any firemen to get hurt."
Hyde said his opinion is based not only on his education as an arson investigator, but also on his own experience in dealing with arsonists.
In 1995, a volunteer firefighter within Hyde's department, along with two volunteer firefighters -- one of whom was the son of a former fire chief -- from a neighboring department in Cranesville, Pa., were arrested for setting blazes in nearby Conneaut and Elk Creek townships.
"Like the case we had here, police in Virginia could be dealing with a group of arsonists," Hyde said. "Either way, I would not be surprised if it is a firefighter, group of firefighters, or someone somehow connected to the department or the investigation."
Koushel said authorities are working "day and night" to catch the person or persons responsible, but said it is a daunting task. Accomack County consists of 455 square miles, and there are an estimated 700 to 800 abandoned structures within that area.
Information that leads to an arrest and conviction could result in an award of up to $5,000 from the Virginia Chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators.
Investigators ask that anyone with information about the fires call the Accomack County Sheriff's Office at 757-787-1131 or the Virginia State Police Chesapeake Headquarters, toll-free, at 1-800-582-8350 or at 757-424-6820.
"We are asking the public to come forward with any information they may have about the arsons," Koushel said.
Koushel said authorities will prosecute whoever is responsible to the full extent of the law. In Virginia, the crime carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
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