The setting for “American Fire” is Accomack County, a sparsely populated rural region on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. During five months in late 2012 and early 2013 this small area witnessed a spree of 67 arsons. This siege of criminal acts drew “Washington Post” reporter Monica Hesse to the area for a story. Hesse knew virtually nothing about this economically depressed county.
Though there were no reported deaths, the frequent fires were exhausting the volunteer fire departments and costing local and state law enforcement agencies thousands of dollars – 14,924 hours of overtime pay for the state police alone.
By organizing stakeouts, law enforcement hoped to catch the arsonist in the act, but all their efforts were unsuccessful. A profiler was hired to solve the mystery, but his predictions also came to naught. Two state troopers pitched a camouflaged pup tent 50 yards behind a tiny unoccupied bungalow. At 11:45 P.M., on the fourteenth night of their watch, they spotted a van pulling up. In the dark, a figure leaped out of the passenger side, ran to the house, stuffed material in the doorjamb and tried to light it.
After several tries, the house caught on fire and the arsonist ran to the waiting van. The troopers radioed for help and down the road a sergeant stopped the vehicle. The passenger jumped out with his hands up. The culprits were named Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick.
Hesse pursues an investigation into the lives of the firebugs. The two locals lived together as a pretty quiet, ordinary couple. They were involved citizens in the community and were well acquainted with the police and firefighters—Smith had even served as a volunteer firefighter.
She finds that the two are involved in a complicated love affair that is emotionally fulfilled by setting fires in abandoned buildings late at night. When she researches their pasts she discovers that Smith was a shy young man who proposed to a girl “out of his league.” They live together, but when they hit hard times, Smith fails to perform in bed.
This makes him exceedingly anxious about the future of their relationship and, at Bundick’s suggestion, the two drive around the county in a gold minivan looking for abandoned buildings to torch. As the couple’s story is revealed, it becomes evident that Bundick is the arsonist and Smith her accomplice. Smith goes along with his live-in for fear he will lose his “prize” of a woman if he doesn’t participate in her daring, criminal and sexually freighted escapades.
I found Hesse’s character depictions especially well written. In introducing Smith she writes: “Charlie's voice was on the slow side, his weight was on the roly-poly side, and when he got confused or embarrassed--or when he was amused or flustered or bored or sometimes for reasons even he wasn’t sure of—he would burst into a high pitched giggle that he couldn’t control.”
Smith admitted to the arsons, but Bundick claimed innocence, but not convincingly; they both were put in prison. Smith was sentenced to 15 years and after several trials Bundick was sentenced to 17 ½ years in prison.
Hesse builds and sustains this captivating drama on dozens of interviews with county residents. The interchanges reveal that 100 years ago Accomack County had been the wealthiest rural county in the nation. Slowly it was drained of its agricultural base, then of its wealth and population. The crime scene is typical of many rural counties in 21st century America, whose economic stability has vanished, leaving countless abandoned buildings.
“American Fire” is a suspenseful, dynamic and well-crafted story of an Eastern Shore County living through many months of fear, puzzlement and peril. It contains courtroom drama, forensic details, mouth-watering gossip and a perverse, “love is strange” kind of love story.
Monica Hesse is a feature writer for the “Washington Post.” “American Fire” is her literary nonfiction debut. She also is the author of the young adult mystery “Girl in the Bluecoat.” Hesse was a finalist for a Livingston Award issued to media professionals under the age of 35 for local, national, and international reporting. Liverlight is the publisher; 255 pages.