Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Evidence is scarce in labor-center arson

Police call case a ‘hate incident’ while the chief admits it is likely a ‘hate crime’

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Investigators are running low on evidence in the case of the recent arson at the county day-laborer center in Shady Grove, which county police have classified a ‘‘hate incident.”

‘‘It’s unfortunate, but we don’t have anything solid at this point,” Capt. Sam Hsu, the county Fire Marshal’s lead investigator on the case, said during a meeting of Police Chief J. Thomas Manger’s Latino Liaison Committee in Gaithersburg Thursday afternoon. The committee of police, county officials and Latino activists meets every month to discuss issues effecting the county’s growing Latino community. About 50 people — three times more than usual — attended last week’s meeting.

Hsu told the committee that investigators have questioned several ‘‘persons of interest,” but have no suspects in the arson, which targeted a controversial employment center for day laborers, many of whom are illegal immigrants.

The Office of the Fire Marshal and Montgomery County Police are partnering in the investigation.

Surveillance cameras at adjacent county-owned buildings did not yield specific evidence, Hsu said, and area businesses that sell the kind of fire-related products that were discovered at the arson site have been subpoenaed.

Surveillance cameras have since been installed at the center, police said.

Representatives of Casa of Maryland, the advocacy group that runs the center, believe the arson was a hate crime.

‘‘Given the three years of racist commentary at Gaithersburg city hearings, of harassment of day laborers on the streets, of phone calls and letters that people involved in the crisis in Gaithersburg have received, I think there’s sufficient evidence to us and certainly to the day laborers that use the Shady Grove center that this was a crime motivated by hate,” said Casa spokeswoman Kim Propeack.

But without an actual suspect or a blatant statement of hate toward the workers, the case cannot be designated a hate crime, police said. Instead, it is being classified as a ‘‘hate incident,” which is ‘‘any biased behavior that does not rise to a criminal level,” said David Baker, the county’s hate crimes coordinator.

Hate incidents do not trigger the boosts in reward money and manpower that hate crimes do.

‘‘The hate crime law is very ambiguous. But in this case, it’s not relevant,” Baker said in an interview. ‘‘The only ambiguity in this case is that we don’t know the motivation.”

So while police have stopped short of officially labeling the arson a hate crime, Manger stressed that all the available resources of a hate investigation are being tapped.

A detective has been assigned specifically to the case, said Baker, and the hate crime tipster fund will be activated, which provides up to $2,000 for information that leads to an arrest.

‘‘The fact is, we all know that very likely this in fact is a hate crime ... so we are doing everything we would do if it was a bona fide, knew-for-sure hate crime,” Manger told The Gazette following the meeting.

‘‘This is a huge case that has a top priority for us, but these kinds of crimes, very likely, many of them go unsolved. These are very, very difficult to solve,” he said.

No other case is a higher priority for the fire marshal’s office, Hsu said.

When the fire was discovered during the pre-dawn hours of May 4, it had already burned out, according to Pete Piringer, spokesman for the county Fire and Rescue Service.

No one was injured, but the fire caused $2,000 in damage to the exterior of the temporary center on Crabbs Branch Way, he said.

At this point, investigators are waiting for a tip from the public to shed light on the case.

‘‘We’re looking for somebody that knows something, that heard something, that maybe just heard somebody talk about it — anything and everything that the public might have heard, we’re looking for information,” Manger said.

Anyone with information should call 240-777-2263.