When 26 houses went up in flames in an extraordinary act of arson outside Washington, D. C., this week, suspicion focused on ecoterrorism at first. After all, the Hunters Brooke...

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INDIAN HEAD, Md. — When 26 houses went up in flames in an extraordinary act of arson outside Washington, D.C., this week, suspicion focused on ecoterrorism at first. After all, the Hunters Brooke development borders an environmentally sensitive magnolia bog and had been vigorously opposed by environmentalists.

But now the possible motive seems less clear, and the case is shaping up as a perplexing exurban mystery. No environmental group has claimed responsibility, and some are noting other facts about the development — most starkly, that it is to be occupied mostly by blacks, making it a rarity in mostly white Charles County, Md.

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Many local residents are dismissing racism or environmentalism as the reason behind the fires, saying the culprit could be anyone — an extremist outsider, perhaps, or someone with a personal grudge.

The mystery persisted Friday as investigators slogged away at the rain-soaked complex. They prepared to wrap up their work and turn over the site to the developer, who probably will have to demolish most of the remaining homes and start from scratch. Damage to the development is estimated to top $10 million.

Searching for blue van

Authorities say the arsonists — they think there was more than one — tried and failed to ignite 10 other houses in the complex, in addition to the 26 destroyed or damaged.

They also say they are looking for a blue van firefighters saw leaving as they arrived at the scene Monday.

“The investigation has no specific path yet,” said Kevin Perkins of the Baltimore FBI. “We’re looking into a lot of leads in a lot of different directions.”

That is not much consolation to dozens of homeowners who were counting the hours until they could begin painting and decorating their new homes. Most of them know from news reports the extent of damage to the homes, but none has been allowed to see the crime scene.

Some of the houses have been reduced to charred rubble piled inside their foundations. Others appear to have only minor damage, and a few seem untouched.

“We’re all in limbo now,” said Jacque Hightower, who was supposed to move into his home Wednesday. “We were two days away from moving in, from realizing our dream — and now, who knows?”

Hightower and his wife, Dawn, said they wanted to move to the area because it seemed peaceful. They had worked hard to save for a $450,000 home, which was partly damaged by the fires.

The developer, Lennar Homes, has been talking with homeowners to try to help those who had already sold their previous homes and now are planning to stay in hotels or with family members while their homes are rebuilt.

In many ways, the 10-acre Hunters Brooke development is no different from hundreds of developments around the country. It consists of large homes planted miles outside the nearest city, appearing alien to their rural environment but allowing homeowners to purchases houses otherwise out of their price range.

While the motive for the arson remains fuzzy, no one disputes how unusual it is. Part of the reason is the scale of the crime; it is rare for 26 homes to go up in flames almost at once.

Houses nearly new

The houses were nearly all new and unoccupied, and it seems the arsonists targeted the houses individually, moving from one to the next and igniting each, rather than lighting one fire that spread to other homes.

New homeowners and longtime residents of the area near the development are confounded by what could have precipitated such seemingly intense hostility. Residents interviewed last week said they were shocked their quiet town had become the target of one of the largest arsons in the country. Rejecting suggestions either ecoterrorists or racists were responsible, they insisted outsiders were likely to blame.

“There’s no one in this small town who’d do something so crazy like that,” said Norm Sloop, who lives nearby, sipping a beer at the Lone Star bar.

Local environmentalists who protested the new development and brought a lawsuit against the developer said they felt like the targets of much of the blame early in the week.

They are trying to protect a rare magnolia bog, Araby Bog, that is near the developments. Environmentalists say cutting down trees near the wetland would eventually destroy the ecosystem that surrounds it.

“People say we’re radical when we put up signs,” said Patricia Stamper, one of the group’s leaders. “This (arson) is something that was professionally done — this was no kid, no amateur.”

There was some speculation that a larger ecoterrorist organization such as the Earth Liberation Front could have been responsible for the destruction.

The group has taken credit for similar acts, including torching sport-utility vehicles. But it often leaves graffiti or posts a message on a Web site claiming responsibility — evidence notably absent from the Hunters Brooke arson.

Others have speculated the homes were burned by racists who did not want blacks moving into town. But there is no evidence of that, either, and locals say that seems far-fetched because the black population in Charles County has grown steadily in recent years.

Authorities said reports that racial slurs had been spray-painted on the burned houses were untrue.

Terry Raum, a bartender at the Lone Star, said people in the area were not upset at who was moving in, but rather at the idea of suburbs being “plopped down all over.”

In a town where people value elbow room, most residents were concerned that suburbs would bring shopping malls, traffic and crime, she said.

Whatever the motivation of the arsonists, most residents are baffled that someone or some group would go to such great lengths to destroy the development.

“Out of all the things I hear folks saying on why they think these people set those fires, it still makes no sense why someone would do it,” Raum said. “It’s just a huge mystery.”