ACCOMACK COUNTY, Va. (WAVY) - It took nearly five months and thousands of hours to catch those accused of setting more than 70 arsons on the Eastern Shore.
Two days after the arrests of Tonya Bundick and Charles Smith, undercover agents were still conducting surveillance.
At the time, video shot by WAVY News was so sensitive, law enforcement asked it not be aired. While Bundick and Smith were behind bars, there were still questioning if anyone else was involved.
Behind the scenes, undercover agents were on the way to stake out the woods around abandoned structures that could be ready to burn. It would be the beginning of the end of the arson investigation.
But let's go back to the beginning.
On Nov. 12, 2012, an abandoned structure burned on Dennis Drive in Accomack County and would be the first reported arson. 140 days and 77 arsons later, the last structure to burn would be on April 1 on Airport Drive in Melfa.
Officials say troopers conducting surveillance in the woods at the home on Airport Drive saw a flicker of flame at the back door. Troopers saw a man, later identified as Smith, standing by the flame. He and Bundick were arrested not far away.
Smith has a long criminal record, mostly containing felonies involving bad checks. Law enforcement officials say he admitted to investigators that he set 52 of the 77 fires and blamed Bundick for 15. That leaves 10 fires unaccounted for and troopers say they could be the work of copycats.
Smith told investigators he and Bundick would leave her 11-year-old and 13-year-old sons home alone while they went out to set the fires. When Bundick was confronted with that information, she shouted obscenities at WAVY News' Andy Fox.
"It did get frustrating," Greg Lewis, a Shift Supervisor with the Accomack County Department of Public Safety, told WAVY.com. "I mean, it was going on night after night."
In the beginning, Virginia State Police investigators had to reconcile different objectives. Firefighters had to put out the fire with water, which destroys evidence. Police had to gather evidence and solve the crime.
"That created an area of slight conflict," Wachapreague Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jeff Pitts said. "Our job legally is to put out that fire. State Police says if it is an abandoned structure, if you can avoid putting it out. That would be great because when you put water on it, you wash all the evidence away."
Three known organizational meetings hammered out the plan on when to fight the fire and how much water to use.
"The State Police said we will leave it to the fire company's discretion to make that decision on how to fight the fire," Pitts added.
It was decided the volunteer fire departments were in command at the scenes, but State Police would get quick, precious moments to gather evidence. Investigators filled footprints and tire tracks with plaster and those molds would likely match the six pairs of boots and the tires now in evidence.
Everyone had their eyes peeled, including Onancock Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mike Truitt, who told WAVY.com he rode by abandoned structures that would later be set on fire.
"Less than five minutes later, you realize you are getting punched out for a fire at a structure you just rode by," he said.
When an arson was called in, investigators would set up at nearby intersections with a license plate reader.
"They would scan multi-license plates," Truitt said. "They were looking for any pattern. For example, a particular plate may be seen five times."
The airport became an increasingly important hub. Investigators brought in a helicopter and a fixed wing plane as well as infrared surveillance cameras that could detect fire and warm bodies in the woods, much like the Boston Marathon bombing suspect whose body could be seen outlined in a boat.
Investigators would also put up cameras around targeted structures that would take pictures when there was movement.
The Accomack County Department of Public Safety gave police abandoned structure intelligence, letting them know where most of the 700 abandoned structures were in the county.
The van Smith and Bundick were arrested in contained a can of black spray paint.
"Charles Smith…advised investigator McPherson that a black in color spray can with black paint was used on a recent graffiti spray painting located on Parksley Road," court documents said. Smith and Bundick are thought responsible for the graffiti spray painted on many of the burned structures. The graffiti reads "J-Floyd, J-Narc."
Ironically, in the end it wasn't all these investigative tools that caught Smith and Bundick. It was old-fashioned police work – staking out in the woods near abandoned structures, waiting and hoping to get lucky.
Life on the Eastern Shore has returned to normal. There's peace, but with an indelible memory of the burning inferno hell that was the Accomack County arsons.
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