ACCOMAC, Va. (AP) — A former volunteer firefighter and his girlfriend are responsible for all but a handful of the 77 arsons set on Virginia's Eastern Shore over the past five months, state police said Tuesday.
Charles R. Smith III, who went by the alias Charles Applegate when he served as captain of the Tasley Volunteer Fire Department several years ago, and his girlfriend, Tonya S. Bundick, were arrested early Tuesday, shortly after an abandoned residence was set ablaze.
The pair has been charged in only one fire, but Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said they are believed to be responsible for most of the blazes set since November. She said more charges should be filed soon.
"We now have a very complex prosecution ahead of us due to the sheer numbers of arsons these two people are responsible for setting," Geller said.
All of the fires were set in or near abandoned or unoccupied commercial and residential buildings, and no injuries were reported.
State police have previously said some of the fires appeared to be the work of a copycat or copycats, but have not said how they know that.
Bundick, 40, and Smith, 38, were each charged with one count of arson and one count of conspiracy to commit arson for Monday night's blaze. Bundick and Smith are being held in Accomack County Jail without bond, pending court appearances Wednesday. It was not immediately clear whether they had attorneys.
"This is really just the beginning of the end," Geller said, adding that the investigation into the fires continues.
Court records show that police observed a fire — the 77th — set just before midnight Monday at the Melfa home, but Gellar did not specify how the surveillance occurred. The criminal complaint says authorities saw an individual get dropped off, set fire to the abandoned residence, then get picked up by the same vehicle. Authorities stopped the minivan, and court records show Bundick was driving.
Geller refused to say whether the pair had confessed to setting the fires or what their motivation might have been.
All of the arsons were set in Accomack County, which borders Maryland and encompasses more than half of Virginia's Eastern Shore. The county doesn't have an arson investigator, so state police have taken the lead and have spent tens of thousands of hours on the case since Dec. 1. Early into the investigation, police identified about 800 abandoned structures in the county as potential targets.
Sometimes multiple fires miles apart were set on a single night, and state police have said they believed at least two people were working together. Police also have said there was no discernible pattern about where the fires were set, although each occurred at night.
During the evenings, the county is dependent on volunteer firefighters, who typically have day jobs, to respond to the fires. The Tasley Volunteer Fire Department Smith is one of 12 volunteer departments in Accomack County.
Residents in the sparsely populated county became accustomed to an increased police presence, with helicopters flying at night.
"There probably is a sense of relief in the community," said Julie Badger, who lives in Melfa, where the most recent fire was set.
Bundick and Smith live together in Parksley, a small community where the first deliberately set fire was lit.
Standing in front of Bundick's small, white home with bicycles in the yard, neighbor Kenneth Peters said he was surprised by the charges. He said Bundick has lived there at least five years with her two sons, and that Smith had recently moved into the home, where Virginia State Police vehicles were parked out front Tuesday. Bundick had worked as an in-home nurse, Peters said, but she's been unemployed for more than a year.
"I wouldn't think they'd be involved in stuff like that, but you never know," Peters said.
In a statement, Accomack County Sheriff Todd Godwin thanked residents for their patience and support "throughout a very extensive and arduous" investigation.
Geller said more than 1,200 tips had come in since the fires began. On Tuesday, an electronic road sign along the side of the main road through the county continued to ask the public for information.
The sign was a few dozen yards away from where an empty hotel had been set on fire. And the hotel is on the same road as the Tasley Volunteer Fire Department, where Smith had once been a leader. Firefighters who had gathered at the department Tuesday evening declined to comment on Smith's arrest.
John J. Lentini, an arson expert and consultant in Islamorada, Fla., with 38 years of experience as a fire investigator, said serial arsonists are rare — and female serial arsonists even more so.
He also said the number of arsons on the Easter Shore is highly unusual.
"I don't know of any serial arsonist that's ever gotten by with that many," he said. "This is really unusual."
He said there are so few serial arsonists that it's difficult to find a common motivation for their behavior, although "there seems to be a lot of anger involved."
Associated Press Writer Larry O'Dell contributed to this report from Richmond, Va.