Burned on Belle Grove
Revenge, avarice, straight-out psychopathic fire-bugging—these are the apparent motives for some of the more famous arson cases in U.S. history, but not in Baltimore
Published: July 10, 2013
In New York in 1990, Julio Gonzalez torched the Happy Land nightclub in a fit of rage after an argument with his girlfriend, who worked there, and 87 people died as the fire raged. In Chicago, Marc Thompson, an executive at a commodities-trading firm, set fire to his home in 2002 to get insurance money, burning to death his 90-year-old mother as a ruse to make it look like she’d done it to commit suicide. In Seattle in the ’80s and ’90s, a church-going ad salesman named Paul Keller started at least 70 fires, killing at least three people.
Revenge, avarice, straight-out psychopathic fire-bugging—these are the apparent motives for some of the more famous arson cases in U.S. history. In Baltimore, though, the Nose is bemused by a recent federal arson prosecution against 31-year-old Brian Keith Swope Jr., a previously convicted thief and robber who allegedly set fire to Pizza City in Pumphrey, near Brooklyn Park, to cover up cleaning the place out of about $50 and some food.
What’s more, Swope allegedly left a trail of cash-register parts and coins leading away from the scene of the crime. Plus, a Pizza City employee’s time card was found outside the home of Swope’s girlfriend, Melissa Wee, about 300 feet behind the Belle Grove Avenue pizzeria.
Even more baffling to the Nose is the target Swope allegedly chose: a business—where he allegedly used to work—owned by federal bribery-conspiracy defendant Mohammad Khan, who’d been arrested on the charges only two days before Pizza City burned in the early morning of May 23, causing an estimated $130,000 in damage. No surprise, then, that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE) joined local fire investigators on the case the same day the fire was set—and promptly developed enough evidence to arrest and charge Swope on state charges later that day.
Federal charges weren’t filed against Swope until June 20, and the affidavit in the case, signed by BATFE special agent Lisa Herb, indicates that Swope had an accomplice. It also lays out what the Nose can best describe as a veritable litany of inexplicable stupidity.
First off, around midnight before the fire, Swope allegedly “asked to borrow a tire iron” from someone who lent it to him and another man, and later shared that information with investigators. Two other people told agents they’d seen Swope and another man in the area of Pizza City at 1:30 a.m. and at 5:30 a.m., when one of them “overheard a loud banging noise” near Wee’s house.
Then, “after Khan’s arrest, but prior to the fire,” Herb’s statement says, Swope allegedly talked with a fourth person about “breaking into Pizza City to get money.” After the fire, Swope allegedly told this person that he’d “used a tire iron” to get into the pizzeria and that “he stole money from the cash register, a laptop, a desktop computer, sodas and frozen items.” Swope allegedly told this person that “the cash register wasn’t worth his time because there was only a $20 bill and $30 in change” and “that he set fire to the building to get rid of the fingerprints and busted up the computers.”
The capper, in terms of Swope’s apparent bone-headedness, is that while in jail on the state charges, he allegedly sent a letter to the person who’d told agents what he’d said about the robbery and arson, instructing the person to claim the incriminating statements had been made under law-enforcement duress. If “worst come to worst,” Swope allegedly wrote, “you can tell them I broke into the store 2 days before the fire.”
The Nose thinks all of this makes Baltimore—or at least Brooklyn Park—look bad. We’re a city that’s famous for crime, and yet, when it comes to arson, this is the best we can do?
In New York, a vengeful and drunken night-club torcher causes mass death. In Chicago, a well-heeled executive with money problems orchestrates his mother’s fiery death to get insurance money. In Seattle, a devout ad man spends years meticulously setting fire after fire, some of which kill people. But in Baltimore, a petty thief allegedly takes small change and food from a pizzeria and, rather than calling it a day, torches the place, leaving a painfully obvious trail of evidence leading directly back to him.
Fortunately, no one was hurt.