updated 4/27/2005 6:20:22 PM ET 2005-04-27T22:20:22

DNA evidence led to the arrest Wednesday of a serial arson suspect wanted in connection with more than 40 fires since March 8, 2003.

Thomas Sweatt, 50, a fast food store manager from the District of Columbia, faces multiple charges in connection with arsons that have occurred in the district, suburban Maryland and northern Virginia.

“This guy posed a huge threat to everyone’s safety in our region,” said Chief Charles H. Ramsey of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department.

The break in the investigation came last week after DNA samples extracted from a pair of U.S. Marine Corps issue dress-blue slacks was analyzed at the Montgomery County, Md., crime lab.

“Those pants had DNA that matched DNA we found at other fires,” said Theresa Stoop, special agent in charge of the Baltimore Field Office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The pants were found at the scene of an Arlington County, Va., fire that occurred Dec. 5, 2004, and was never added to the public list of fires under investigation by the arson task force.

Navy had investigated vehicle fires
It is unclear how Sweatt obtained the military-issue pants, and authorities said there was no immediate indication he served in the armed forces. But investigators contacted the Naval Criminal Investigation Service and were informed that NCIS had investigated a string of vehicle arsons in early 2003. Although Sweatt was never charged in those cases, he was considered a suspect, Stoop said.

“This threat is over, this nightmare has ended,” said Stoop, who announced that Sweatt had been taken into custody in Prince George’s County, Md.

Sweatt was questioned by investigators for several hours Wednesday, and had reportedly confessed to at least one fire. Investigators did not expect to make any additional arrests in the case.

Sweatt is charged with six federal counts in Maryland and five in D.C. At his initial court appearance late Wednesday afternoon in Greenbelt, Md., federal court, Sweatt spoke quietly, answering “yes” when the judge asked if he understood the charges. A detention hearing is set for Friday morning.

‘All of us were victims’
The arrest came as a relief for both residents and officials worried when the elusive arsonist would strike again.

“All of us were victims of the serial arsonist as all of us remained on edge not knowing where this person would strike next,” said D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams. The fires were linked to the probe by common evidence: gasoline used as an accelerant, one-gallon plastic containers found at the scenes, plastic bags and cloth material used as wicks.

“We were out of our home and in a hotel for eight months,” said Markos Kebede, whose New Carrollton, Md., home was damaged in a fire that occurred on Dec. 20, 2003. Fear lingered even after their home was repaired.

“We were afraid. That’s why we got the alarm system,” Kebede said.

Sweatt has not been charged with murder in the June 5, 2003, fire that killed Lou Edna Jones, 86. of Northeast Washington, but Ramsey said those charges are pending.

‘It's just shocking’
Coworkers at the KFC-Pizza Hut store where Sweatt works were also questioned by investigators.

“It’s just shocking to me. He was real soft-spoken. He was a fatherly, shy type figure,” said Joseph Hunter, 34, a KFC cook who has worked there two months. The store was closed Wednesday.

“While we have had no reason to suspect any wrongdoing, we are fully cooperating with the authorities in this investigation,” KFC spokeswoman Bonnie Warschauer said in a statement from the company’s Louisville, Ky., headquarters.

Investigators also searched portions of an apartment building Sweatt owned with his sister in Southeast Washington. The two have lived in separate apartments in the four-unit building for at least 15 years. Sweatt was often seen sweeping sidewalks and picking up litter along Lebaum Street.

“He would start at the front of the block and clean all the way past his building, just to make the neighborhood a better place,” said Jose Muse, 31, who owns the building next to Sweatt’s.

“He and his sister are good people, when you see them all they’re doing is fixing up buildings, cleaning up and doing good things for the community,” said Antwan Drayton, who lives across the street.

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