INDIAN HEAD, Md. - When 26 houses went up in flames in an extraordinary act of arson outside Washington this week, suspicion focused on ecoterrorism at first. After all, the Hunters Brooke development borders an environmentally sensitive magnolia bog and had been vigorously opposed by environmentalists.But now the possible motive seems less clear, and the case is shaping up as a perplexing exurban mystery. No environmental group has claimed responsibility, and some are noting other facts about the development - most starkly, that it is to be occupied mostly by blacks, making it a rarity in mostly white Charles County, Md.

Many local residents are dismissing racism or environmentalism as the reason behind the fires, saying the culprit could be anyone - an extremist outsider, perhaps, or someone with an unknown personal grudge.

The mystery persisted Friday as investigators slogged away at the rain-soaked complex. They prepared to wrap up their work and turn over the site to the developer, who likely will have to demolish most of the remaining homes and start from scratch.

Authorities say the arsonists - they believe there was more than one - tried and failed to ignite 10 other houses in the complex, in addition to the 26 destroyed or damaged.

"The investigation has no specific path yet," said Kevin Perkins of the Baltimore FBI. "We're looking into a lot of leads in a lot of different directions."


SEATTLE - A judge has signed off on a $2.5 million settlement between relatives of Washington-area sniper victims and a gun shop and weapon maker connected to the shootings.

In the settlement reached in September, Bull's Eye Shooter Supply of Tacoma agreed to pay $2 million to two survivors and six families related to the victims of snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. Gun manufacturer Bushmaster Firearms of Windham, Maine, agreed to pay the remaining $500,000.

Bushmaster made the weapon used in the shootings, which the pair reportedly stole from Bull's Eye. The families' lawsuit alleged that the shop's owners were negligent in allowing that gun and others to disappear, and that Bushmaster was at fault for shipping the gun to an irresponsible dealer.

Sonia Wills, the mother of victim Conrad Johnson, said $2.5 million "is nothing."

"They know they're worth more than that," she said Friday. "This money will never bring my son back. It will never bring back any of the loved ones that were taken."


FORT WORTH, Texas - The criminal case against Army Pfc. Lynndie England, the woman in some of the most notorious photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, is being transferred to Fort Hood, Texas, from Fort Bragg, N.C.

England, 22, of West Virginia, is one of four soldiers in the Army Reserve's 372nd Military Police Company accused of abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners in late 2003.

Technically, England's court-martial is off. Under military law, Fort Hood's commander must review the charges and formally restart court-martial proceedings. He can also skip a court-martial and punish her administratively.

"He has the authority to go back and say: 'There's a lot of stuff missing. I want to start over,' " said Dan Hassett, a spokesman for III Corps. "It may be several weeks before that is decided."


REDWOOD CITY, Calif. - The jurors deciding the fate of convicted murderer Scott Peterson ended their deliberations Friday without reaching a verdict.

On Monday, they will resume debating whether Peterson should be put to death or spend the rest of his life in prison. The six-man, six-woman jury has deliberated for about 81/2 hours since Thursday.

Last month, the jury convicted Peterson, 32, of killing his pregnant wife, Laci, and the fetus she was carrying.

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