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News coverage of arson charges against 5 former PGFD firefighters

PGFD says administrative investigation of West Lanham Hills VFD is just beginning

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Initial coverage of this story

Watch press conference announcing arson indictments

Emily Davies, The Washington Post:

Five former volunteer firefighters were indicted on charges of conspiring to set fires in vacant buildings so they could respond while on duty, Prince George’s County officials announced Friday.

The five men are accused of helping to plan four arsons with three previously charged civilians. The fires caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage and no one was injured, officials said.

They were removed from their positions as volunteers with the West Lanham Hills Volunteer Fire Department when the investigation began in early 2020, officials said.

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Investigators believe that two men who were known to the five firefighters set four unoccupied properties ablaze to which Hawkins, Holzberger, Smith, St. John and Vazquez then responded to and put out.

The two men, Giancarlo Reyes and Francis Ortiz-Oro, both face multiple charges including arson in connection to the fires.

Authorities say video surveillance of the fire station and of electronic devices belonging to the indicted firefighters led them to believe that the five men “had knowledge of and were involved in the planning of arsons for the purpose of responding to the incident scenes and extinguishing the fires.” Officials believe Smith was also involved in the setting of one of the fires.

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Gregory Dailey & Brad Bell, WJLA-TV/ABC7:

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.

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Tracee Wilkins, WRC-TV/ABC7:

Investigators said their case centers around arsons of four empty homes, two of which were for sale at the time, according to Jagtiani. No firefighters or residents were injured.

During the year-long investigation, the fire department said they found some issues inside of the fire house that are in violation of the department’s policies.

“Anyone who has been in this position of trust, who has been trained, who has raised their right hand and sworn to protect this community, when they violate that oath it is devastating to our community,” said Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy.

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