This story, originally published Sept. 23 at 5:14 p.m., was updated Sept. 25 at 12:45 p.m. to add reaction from the owner of The Taco Bar.
A 23-year-old man has been charged with six counts of arson in connection with a string of fires early Sunday in Gaithersburg that damaged a police station, restaurants, stores, a hair salon and a car, according to charging documents.
Fernando Herrera-Rivera of Gaithersburg was taken into custody Sunday near North Frederick Avenue and is being held without bond, according to Pete Piringer, spokesperson for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service (MCFRS).
Piringer estimated collective damage of at least $1 million; no one was injured besides Herrera-Rivera suffering apparent blisters, authorities said.
The Maryland Office of the Public Defender, which is representing Herrera-Rivera, on Friday declined to comment.
Charging documents outline the string of fires. Around 2:21 a.m. Sunday, the on-duty Montgomery County Fire and Explosives Investigator was dispatched to 433 S. Frederick Ave., charging documents stated.
Upon arrival, MCFRS personnel found and suppressed two fires in the Holbrook Shopping Center—one in the Dock of the Bay, a beer and wine store, and one a few doors down at the El Salvadoreno Latin Market, at 441 S. Frederick Ave., charging documents said.
“Both businesses had evidence of being broken into as their glass door fronts were smashed and broken by landscaping rocks nearby,” charging documents state. A half-full red gas can was found in the Dock of the Bay, according to charging documents.
Dock of the Bay management posted Wednesday on its Facebook page that the store would be closed “because of the attacks and we will be back soon. Thank you for the support.”
Then, at 3:05 a.m., MCFRS received a call about a fire at the Gaithersburg City Police Department Station at 12 Fulks Corner, which is half a mile from Holbrook Shopping Center, and no one was in the station at the time because of the nearby blazes, according to charging documents.
MCFRS personnel found fire on the side of the building and extinguished it, and video footage showed a man lighting the fire, charging documents said. There was resulting damage to the exterior of the building, according to Piringer.
The Montgomery County Public Safety Communication Center then received a call at 3:17 a.m. about a vehicle on fire at 3 Russell Ave., which is less than half a mile from the Gaithersburg police station, charging documents indicated.
MCFRS personnel found a 2019 Toyota Camry ablaze, along with a nearby building on fire, according to charging documents.
Charging documents said the fire was set on an outside staircase located to the side of the building and expanded into the structure. Three businesses, The Taco Bar, La Frontera (a Tex-Mex restaurant) and Dina’s Hair Designs, were damaged by fire or fire suppression efforts, according to charging documents.
Around 3:37 a.m., a Montgomery County Police patrol officer saw Herrera-Rivera, who allegedly matched the suspect description in video footage, near 501 N. Frederick Ave., which is 1.5 miles from 433 S. Frederick Ave., according to charging documents. Herrera-Rivera also possessed around 20 lighters, which matched the lighters found at the scenes at two of the fires, charging documents alleged.
The officer detained him, charging documents indicated.
While police prepared to transport him to the Montgomery County Central Processing Unit, another fire was reported at 101 S. Frederick Ave. outside Pepco substation #39—next to the Gaithersburg police station—according to charging documents. The door was scorched, but the interior was not damaged, charging documents indicated.
Piringer said such a rapid string of fires is a rare occurrence.
“Fortunately, it does not occur very often to this degree,” Piringer told MoCo360.
Piringer said there are additional fires that have not been officially connected to Herrera-Rivera yet, and additional arson charges are pending.
Herrera-Rivera was identified through video surveillance and witness accounts, and after he was interviewed at the Central Processing Unit, law enforcement determined there was probable cause to arrest him, Piringer said. Herrera-Rivera was charged with six counts of second-degree arson.
During an interview with investigators, Herrera-Rivera said he had been driven to 441 S. Frederick Ave., where his “abductors” shot through the window with a sniper rifle and forced him to enter the El Salvadoreno Latin Market, according to charging documents. He also said that he saw smoke inside the store and left, per the charging documents.
Then, he stated he observed the fire at the police station and then saw a man, who looked just like him, stuffing newspaper under a vehicle in the parking lot at Russell Avenue and light it on fire, the charging documents said.
According to charging documents, “he did not admit to lighting the fires himself, only he happened to see them as they were occurring.” However, an investigator noted “blisters resembling those of burns” on both of Herrera-Rivera’s palms, charging documents stated.
Raul Valdivia, owner of The Taco Bar, said in a Monday-morning email that the restaurant is closed until further notice and that staff is not allowed to enter the upstairs of the building or storage areas.
“I have a lot to say about his actions, but nothing I say will recover everything he destroyed,” Valdivia said of the suspect. “Not only did he physically destroyed the buildings/businesses, he destroyed our livelihood as business owners, he terrorized the city and most importantly, he abruptly ended many jobs to single mothers whose sons and daughters depend on.”
According to digital court records, a bench warrant had been filed on March 24 for Herrera-Rivera for not appearing in court in an unrelated case. He had been charged Dec. 4, 2022, with possessing and concealing a dangerous weapon, online court records indicated.
Herrera-Rivera has a preliminary hearing scheduled in his arson case for Oct. 13.