By Joe Murchison

Computers and cell phones can be very helpful tools — unless you’re a revenge-obsessed arsonist who once served as Laurel’s police chief. In that instance, they might send you to prison for the rest of your life.

Booking mugshot of David Michael Crawford
Courtesy of Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office.

David Michael Crawford, 71, a police veteran of more than three decades who served as the Laurel chief from 2006 to 2010, was convicted March 9 of having set fires at three Howard County homes in 2017 and 2018 based on evidence from his digital devices. After the weeklong trial, a Circuit Court jury found Crawford guilty of eight counts of attempted first-degree murder, based on how many people were in the homes in the early-morning hours when he used gasoline to set them ablaze. Each count carries a possible life sentence. Crawford’s sentencing is scheduled for June 27.

As if that weren’t enough legal jeopardy, Crawford faces more. He is charged with setting fires at five other houses in Prince George’s, Montgomery, Frederick and Charles counties from 2011 to 2020. The Prince George’s County charges involve the Laurel homes of Rich McLaughlin, Crawford’s successor as city police chief,, and Martin Flemion, the city’s deputy administrator at the time Crawford served as chief,. Both McLaughlin and Flemion testified in the Howard County trial. A trial on the Laurel arsons is scheduled for July 10 in Prince George’s County Circuit Court.  

Crawford has been in jail since being charged with all these crimes in March 2021. The charging document filed at that time spells out in great detail the crime trail and Crawford’s apparent motivations. It also tells how Crawford became the suspect: He was caught on a surveillance video during the McLaughlin incident in March 2019 and was recognized by some of his family members when the video was released to the public. Police executed a search warrant at Crawford’s Ellicott City home in January 2021, found a profusion of incriminating evidence on his devices and arrested him two months later.  

Reached for comment, McLaughlin said he couldn’t talk about Crawford until after his Prince George’s County trial in July. Flemion could not be reached for comment.

Laurel city officials asked Crawford to vacate his position as police chief in late 2010, according to the charging document.

Mayor Craig Moe, who was Crawford’s boss while he was chief, declined to go into specifics about why he asked Crawford to leave. He did say, “I saw changes in performance and things that didn’t get done that I had asked him to do, and decided to make some changes.”

Former Laurel police Lt. Carl DeWalt, now a city councilmember, was more expressive. He said Crawford was a “bully. … He used to yell at the other (police) commanders. … The people in our community didn’t like him, and the officers definitely didn’t like him.”

Here is the story as told by the charging document:

In the early-morning hours of May 28, 2011, someone poured gasoline and set afire two cars parked at 1139 12th Street, the home of Deputy Administrator Flemion. A neighbor who heard the commotion witnessed the arsonist catch his pants on fire before he fled. Investigators found a target list on Crawford’s cell phone that included the name Martin. Crawford’s email account showed that he had posted to an online medical forum 17 days after the fire, noting that he had suffered a burn on his calf two weeks prior. After his arrest, Crawford was found to have a burn scar on his calf.

In September 2016, the garage door of a town home in Clarksburg, Montgomery County, was set on fire at about 5:33 in the morning. Almost exactly a year later, a second fire was set at the house. The owners of the home, Justin and Mariam Scherstrom, then moved to a new home in Clarksburg, and it was set on fire on Nov. 17, 2020. Justin was Crawford’s stepson (the son of Crawford’s wife, Mary). The charging document says, “The relationship between Crawford and the Scherstrom family is described by Justin and Mariam as being strained. … There have been a multitude of heated arguments.” The target list on Crawford’s phone included the name Justin followed by the number 3. Also, an Apple Health app on the phone showed that Crawford was active the early morning of the third fire.

In an early morning in March 2017, a car in front of a home in Ellicott City was set on fire. The owner of the car, Erica Byrne, was a trainer of volunteer court-appointed special advocates, and Mary Crawford had attended one of her classes the previous fall. Mary Crawford afterward wrote a letter to a Howard County judge complaining about the use of the term white privilege during the training. Byrne later removed Mary Crawford from the program. Crawford’s target list included the term white privilege.

On a morning in June 2017, at about 4:19 a.m., a home in Elkridge was set on fire. The owners, Russell and Veronica Antico, were both chiropractors who had given Crawford a series of 19 treatments for a back injury — the last being six months before the fire. Crawford’s Google Map and Facebook searches, along with his Apple Health data, were incriminating. Crawford’s target list included the word chiro. The Anticos testified at the trial that they did not know of any ill will harbored by Crawford related to his treatments.

On Dec. 19, 2017, at about 3:17 a.m., a home in Ellicott City was set ablaze. Almost a year later, on Sept. 22, 2018, when repairs had been completed but the house was still unoccupied, it was set on fire a second time. The house was owned by Scott and Evelyn Henderson. Evelyn was head of a neighborhood association committee that Crawford joined and tried to control. Evelyn recalled Crawford’s displeasure when she once made changes to a PowerPoint presentation he had prepared. Crawford had made Google Map searches of her home before the first fire, and his target list included the name Evelyn followed by the number 2.

In April 2018, a house in the town of Jefferson, Frederick County, was set on fire. The owner was a former Prince George’s County deputy police chief, Clark Price, under whom Crawford had worked as a major and who had not suggested Crawford for promotion to a top position in the department. In March 2019, a truck parked at a house in Waldorf, Charles County, was set on fire. The house was owned by Alphonso Hawkins, whose father (of the same name) had served as interim Prince George’s County police chief and who also had not recommended Crawford for promotion. In both cases, Crawford had made computer searches of their addresses and had incriminating Apple Health data. Crawford’s target list included the names Price and Hawkins.

On March 16, 2019, someone poured gas on two cars in a West Laurel driveway and made a trail of gasoline to the garage, then lit the gas. The cars, garage and house were soon on fire. Surveillance video captured images of the arsonist. The house was owned by Rich McLaughlin, who served as Crawford’s deputy chief and succeeded him as chief. “McLaughlin advised that there was definite animosity between Crawford and McLaughlin,” the charging document stated. Investigators found a PowerPoint on Crawford’s device that listed McLaughlin’s address, aerial views of his home and other personal information. Crawford had a calendar entry on his phone for the day of the fire titled “McLaughlin Fire.” His target list included the name McLaughlin.

Since the revelations of Crawford’s trail of revenge, DeWalt’s thoughts have turned to three unsolved crimes in Laurel. In 2012, someone fired a bullet through a window of the home of Kristie Mills, who was Laurel’s city administrator — Martin Flemion’s boss — when Crawford was told to leave. And two parks were torched by overnight fires within eight days of each other in March 2013. Could Crawford have had his hand in these as well?

“You can’t make this stuff up,” DeWalt said.