Five men who were volunteers with the West Lanham Hills Volunteer Fire Department in Prince George’s County have been charged in connection to arsons throughout the county in late 2019 and early 2020.
All five were indicted as part of an investigation that began last year while they were still with the fire department.
Jeremy Hawkins, 26; Nicolas Holzberger, 19; George Smith, 24; Jay St. John, 24; and Cole Vazquez, 21, are all charged with multiple counts related to the arsons.
“Evidence shows that all involved were aware of the fires before, during and after the fires were set,” said Shajahan Jagtiani, the battalion chief and fire marshal for Prince George’s Fire and EMS.
An investigation into the West Lanham Hills Volunteer Fire Department began after two arson arrests of civilians connected to the fire house last year.
Giancarlo Reyes, who wanted to be a firefighter but was rejected after a background check, and his friend Francis Ortiz-Oro were both charged for allegedly setting an empty Lanham home on fire. The crime was caught on a home security camera.
Reyes’ mother told Telemundo 44 that her son helped at the fire department and one of the firefighters told her son to set a house on fire.
She said in part that other firefighters were telling her son that they were bored and they wanted an adrenaline rush. Reyes’ mother said they then went to an old, empty house to set it on fire, which fire investigators confirmed Friday.
“The former firefighters who had been indicted had knowledge of and were planning arsons for the purpose of responding to and extinguishing those fires,” Jagtiani said.
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.
Hawkins is being held at the Prince George’s County jail while the other four former volunteer firefighters have been issued a criminal summons to appear in court.
After the criminal trial, an administrative investigation into the leadership of the fire house will begin, according to the fire department.
“It is beyond disheartening to learn that the accused were willing to cause harm simply so they could serve themselves,” said Prince George’s County Fire Chief Tiffany Green. “I want to make clear that their alleged actions in no way reflect upon the hundreds of dedicated volunteer firefighters who serve our community each and every day.”