Accomack arson spree featured in book

(Delmarva Now) -- Nearly five years after Accomack County was beset with a series of arson fires, a book delving into the incident and the couple who set them will be published July 11.

Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse spent two months in fall 2015 living in a rented house in Accomack County and made nine or 10 additional trips to the county to conduct research for the book, "American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land."

The string of more than 70 arson fires that happened in Accomack County in late 2012 and early 2013 captured the attention of the outside world, even as it exhausted the local firefighters, police officers and newspaper reporters and photographers who had to deal with the nightly blazes according to their respective occupations.

The crime spree ended when Charlie R. Smith III and Tonya S. Bundick, an engaged couple living in Hopeton, were arrested leaving the scene of a house fire in Melfa late on April Fool's Day 2013.

Hesse will return to the county for a book signing at the Book Bin in Onley on Saturday, July 15, from noon to 2 p.m. — two days after her debut reading at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., on July 13 at 7 p.m.

"I'm going to a lot of places to talk about this book, and I'm more nervous about coming to Accomack. You could put me in a packed auditorium in the Kennedy Center and I would be more nervous about coming to the Book Bin, because it is a hard thing to come into a place that you are not from and pretend that you are going to get it right," Hesse said.

Still, she gave it her all trying to do just that.

"I tried hard to talk to a lot of people, but I couldn't talk to everyone," she continued. "And so, my hope is that people read this book and they recognize their experience and themselves in parts of it — and then, the parts that they think I got wrong, they yell at me about and we can continue talking about it."

She likely will hear about misspelling the town name Pungoteague and perhaps about not capitalizing "Shore" — a local usage when the word is used as shorthand for the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

Still, she captured a lot about how people thought and felt about the fires, which during the nearly five months they went on were pretty much the main topic of conversation on the Shore.

Immersing herself

Hesse took a five-month leave of absence from her job as a feature writer for the Post to write the book, which she dedicated to "firefighters and lovers everywhere, but especially the ones in Tasley."

In the course of researching the crime spree, Hesse interviewed more than 100 people — including firefighters, police investigators, arson profilers, attorneys and others, as well as the two arsonists themselves, Charles R. Smith III and Tonya S. Bundick.

Hesse said she talked with Smith "quite a bit" during her stay in 2015, when Smith was still incarcerated in the Accomack County Jail.

"I would go over on Saturday, on visitors' day, and talk to him."

With Bundick, it was a different story.

Hesse had obtained a jailhouse interview with the diminutive arsonist for an April 9, 2014, article she wrote for the Washington Post, which some local folks thought was a little too sympathetic to the female arsonist.

Still, Bundick may not have thought it was sympathetic enough.

"She was not happy with the article, as far as I gathered," Hesse said.

The two women exchanged a few letters after that, "but she made it clear she did not want to talk again," Hesse said, adding, "I think she was looking for a champion."

The result of Hesse's research is a 255-page, nonfiction book, published by Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton and Company.

It highlights a number of members of local volunteer fire departments — in particular Tasley Volunteer Fire Company — as well as local law enforcement officers, attorneys, ministers and the judge who tried Bundick, along with some of the property owners whose buildings were destroyed.

Shuckers, the former restaurant and bar outside Onancock frequented by the arsonists, plays a prominent role in the book. Hesse calls the establishment, which has undergone many a reincarnation through the years, "a palimpsest of Eastern Shore history."

Hesse starts her story at the beginning, with the first reported arson fire in what would turn into one of the longest-running strings of set fires the United States has seen.

That fire was on Nov. 12, 2012, at a vacant house on Dennis Drive in Hopeton, not far from where the couple who ultimately were convicted of setting the blazes lived.

Eastern Shore of Virginia residents, who already know the details of the fires all too well, likely will find most intriguing information Hesse shares about how the investigation progressed during the four-plus months the crime spree lasted.

Those details, of course, were not made public at the time, as investigators scrambled to solve the case and stop the fires.

Arson is suspected in fire that destroyed famous Whispering Pines Motel in Tasley.

Hesse intersperses chapters in which she recounts details of the fires and the subsequent trials with ones talking about Bundick's and Smith's background and others about the psychology of arson, Accomack's history and economy, and famous criminal couples.

"There are really three strings through the book," Hesse said: they are the arson investigation; the love story between Smith and Bundick; and the story of the county itself — both what it was like to live there during the fires and the larger story of life in a rural region.

"That was really unusual"

So why would a busy journalist from Washington feel so compelled to write this book that she would move with her dog for two months to the Eastern Shore, leaving her husband and job behind?

Washington is "just in the radius of where we would hear about the fires when they happened, but not much more than that," Hesse said.

After it was discovered it was a couple setting the fires, Hesse became intrigued.

"I didn't know a lot about arsons, but I knew enough to know that was weird, that that was really unusual."

She asked her editor at the Washington Post to assign her to cover the October 2013 hearing in Accomack County Circuit Court where Smith — who had made an hours-long confession the night he was arrested — was expected to plead guilty to setting dozens of arson fires.

Her boss agreed to send her to the Shore for the hearing.

Bundick's confession had been videotaped and the recorded confession was made part of the court record.

"That was when the document was released where Charlie sort of laid out the relationship problems they had been having and how it all started from his perspective. I was really hooked, because it was so not what I was expecting — it was a different and more emotional story than I was expecting," Hesse said.

Her first telling of the story that had so captured her imagination was in a long feature article for the Washington Post published a year after the arrests, when Bundick still awaited sentencing on her initial two charges and faced trial on 62 additional indictments, and at a time when Smith also had not yet been sentenced.

"How the book came about is, when I did the article, it was still in the time when it was pretty raw and also there were still a lot of legal things going on — so the police couldn't talk and the sheriff's department couldn't talk and the lawyers couldn't talk. There wasn't an ending yet, because the trials were still going on," Hesse said.

"I just felt like I wanted to know more — and then I didn't stop wanting to know more," she said.

So she decided to write a book — and she found by the time she came to live on the Shore in 2015, some of people's frustration and sheer exhaustion after the fires had dissipated and people were ready to talk.

Hesse said she is especially grateful to Tasley Volunteer Fire Company for helping her understand the volunteer firefighter's experience.

She wanted to get to know its members better during her stay — not only because Tasley was called out to more of the arson fires than any other company, but also because it was where Smith had once served as a volunteer firefighter, although he was not an active member at the time.

"They were great and let me sleep in the firehouse and hang out with them in the firehouse — because I really wanted to get a real sense of what it's like to be a volunteer firefighter. That was the greatest gift to me," she said.

Additionally, Hesse said she got to talk to almost all the other players in the arson drama she had wanted to interview — including Accomack County Sheriff Todd Godwin, Virginia State Police Investigator Glenn Neal and Accomack County Commonwealth's Attorney Gary Agar, who has since retired.

"It felt like — if my goal in the beginning was, I didn't get the full story, I didn't get to hear enough — I felt like by the end, I had."

Delmarva Now


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